The politics of dentistry ... from a patient's perspective

Author Lisa Newburger says, "You think this article is about the politics YOU as a dental professional deal with day in and day out. Nope. I’m going to share the patient’s perspective, or should I say the patient’s politics that must be played."

Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2012 June Salsadancing

By Lisa Newburger, LISW-S

Let me guess. You think this article is about the politics YOU as a dental professional deal with day in and day out. Nope. I’m going to share the patient’s perspective, or should I say the patient’s politics that must be played. I’m talking about the hoops we jump through as long-term patients with a chronic problem — TMJ. (Don’t be confused. It doesn’t mean TOO MUCH JAWING.)

A proud TMJ patient since 2001, I have seen a lot. I have a team of five specialists who have provided care to me for years. In 2001, I couldn’t open my mouth. (My husband should have enjoyed that, but he’s a good guy.) I had jaw pain, horrific headaches, and earaches. At this point, I entered the political world of dentistry. What do you do when a doctor says, “You are my worst pain patient ever”? (Cool, where’s my trophy?) But this is not a coveted award. Why would someone ever tell a patient this? When someone is in severe pain, they want their dental assistant, doctor, hygienist, or even front desk staff to understand their pain. I know that may not be realistic, but there are incredible people in dentistry who have unbelievable compassion.

I’ve been in practices where the front office staff has been very unsympathetic. (You know what I mean; you’ve seen it.) It isn’t my fault if pain, broken brackets, or retainers that need tweaking lead me to make frequent visits. (Trust me, weekly 45-minute drives for a five-minute visit wears on me, and my car.) I don’t call to cause trouble with the office schedule or to be demanding. I just need your help.

One periodontist looked at my jaw and said, “Your jaw isn’t in line.” He walked out of the room and never returned. I was in the midst of treatment, and this guy didn’t like the specialist I was going to. He thought he was a quack! This sent me over the edge. I have a $31,000 mouth, and I am not looking to mess with the care I need. I paid for X-rays and consultations with another specialist in order to get peace of mind. I was in the midst of treatment and we were working on getting the jaws in line. I chose not to confront him about his comment.

Regarding politics, when you’re a patient, you can’t afford to make your doctor or dental staff mad. Sure, I funded one specialist’s retirement, and I’m currently putting another specialist’s son through college. But you can’t make them mad or they will dump you. I am polite. I say thank you. I am not demanding. I don’t want to deal with the passive aggressiveness I have witnessed in these offices.

Let me tell you a secret. Patients listen. We listen to how office staff talk to each other, talk on the phone, what is said to patients in the waiting room, and more. So be careful not to say anything negative. You’re marketing your practice with everything you do, from the conversations you hold to how warmly you greet patients.

I think I should be classified as a “vulnerable population.” (I think those who suffer from TMJ should be a protected group, just like race, religion, and gender.) There are always people who are unhappy in their job. Or perhaps they have major problems at home. But, be aware that dental office staff are in a position to make or break someone’s dental experience. Let’s face it. No one really likes to go to the dental office. (Except for my father and brother who have a really attractive hygienist they specifically request.) But most of us worry about the pain, about taking time off work, or more importantly, at least in my case, about THE BILL. The dental staff has a tough job. You’re doing so much more than being a dental assistant or hygienist. You are being a politician.

Let me share a funny story to make my point. See the photo below? I was on a boat salsa dancing right after I got my braces off. The boat was going pretty fast. There were 30 people watching me make a TOTAL spectacle of myself. (If you can’t laugh at yourself, no one else should have the right to.) My upper retainer went flying out of my mouth while I was laughing. It fell on the ridge where we were dancing. I dove for it. (Think of that horrible crunch if it’s stepped on.) This is symbolic of dental office politics. Everything is fragile. How you deal with your patients, how you clean their teeth, or how you treat them with respect can be destroyed with one misstep. This dance we do helps people decide if they’re going to return to your office. Pay attention to your patients. Listen to what they say. Patients don’t try to be difficult. (OK, some do, but not the majority.)

Oh yeah, the end to this story. The people on the boat were a little tipsy. They actually believe to this day that I laughed until my teeth fell out of my mouth.

Author bio
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S, a.k.a. Diana Directive, is a TMJ queen who provides humorous ways to deal with difficult topics. She can be reached through

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