And the Academy Award for Best Actor in a motion picture goes to…Eddie Redmayne…for his role of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.   What a moment.  The cameras switched over to a very disappointed Michael Keaton who was really counting on giving his acceptance speech.  That didn’t happen.  The Academy gave it to the relative novice because of the masterful job he did in portraying Stephen Hawking the Nobel Prize winning physicist and a victim of ALS.

Redmayne, in the tradition of many other great actors like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, won the award because of the difficulty of the role.  It required putting himself in the place of an another and actually becoming that person.  For Lewis it was the palsied Christy Brown, for Hoffman it was the role of a woman, and for Redmayne it was Hawking, who has been confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak since 1985.

Amazing performances all.  The one quality that makes those roles possible: empathy.

The dictionary defines empathy as:

The art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.

As dentists we must master the “art” of empathy in order to be truly successful.  Empathy and the habits that are necessary to develop, will be the trait that will separate dentists in the future. 

We live in a time where there is a deficit of empathy.  Most of us are overly concerned with ourselves rather than “the other.”  It’s a paradox, but none other than the famous motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar used to say, “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”

I take nothing away from Michael Keaton and as I will explain I really liked his movie Birdman better, but as far as acting performances go Redmayne became Stephen Hawking.

You see, Birdman, Keaton’s award winning movie discussed just that sentiment.  It was subtitled, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.  What does that mean?

It can be summed up in a scene where Keaton is arguing with a reviewer about how good an actor he is (in the movie…not in real life…seems to be his haunting theme).  She tells him he’s a celebrity, not an actor.

WATCH THE CLIP:<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

So what is the difference?  Today it’s easy to become a celebrity…yes, even in a field like dentistry.  I see so many dentists who are more interested in Facebook and Twitter (a theme also revealed in Birdman—when he walked down Broadway in his whitey tighties, I guess that was the unexpected virtue of ignorance.), than in truly treating each and every patient with empathy.  They want to become celebrities—smile artists.

Empathy is what makes us human.  It keeps everything real.  The question is, can it be developed or is it just something we have or not. 

I guess, if actors can develop it, we can create the habit of empathy.

When I studied the Pankey philosophy, I noted that L.D. Pankey used the word virtue a lot.  Aristotle used that word.  I never quite grasped what it meant to the Greeks, but the writers of Birdman also used it in their subtitle.

A virtue refers to actions taken to create a level of excellence.  It takes practice to develop excellence, and enough good habits lead to what Aristotle called the “good life.”

Dentists understand this when it comes to technical practice…but what about the habit of empathy, or as Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, before trying to be understood.”

What are some things we can do to develop empathy:

  • Become Spock-like.  Get into a mind-meld mindset.  Imagine yourself knowing what the other is thinking.

  • Follow the Platinum Rule—I used to think the Golden Rule was the right thing but the Platinum Rule states that you should treat people not as you would want to be treated but as they want to be treated.  As if you were the other.

  • Use creative storytelling to imagine yourself in the life of the other.  Great empathists like Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were masters of this.

  • Immerse yourself in the actual dental experience,  Feel that fear, feel the financial pressure.  Many dentists are masters of the “should,” without ever having experienced what it is to have extensive dentistry.

  • Practice the art of conversation.  Learn the language of empathy and take the time to understand patients.

  • Be curious about the lives of patients…as Pankey used to say, their circumstances, objectives and temperament.

  • Share your story with people…get deep.  Go further than small talk about the weather and sports.  As author Bren’e Brown advises, become vulnerable.

These are just a few of the things that we can do to practice empathy.  Readers of my book, Art of Examination, know that the dentists can build these into their daily practice…so in the end they will not only play the role of a real human dentist but they can actually become one.



Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 12.36.12 PM Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 12.36.24 PM


It’s a tragedy when a person has to lose all of their teeth.  Sadly, there are many people who eventually have to face that situation.  There was a time when all of our efforts were directed toward prevention and keeping teeth.  That is is till the philosophy of most of us in dentistry, but due to circumstances many people still lose their teeth.

Economics plays a role these days.

Lucky for most of us we have a great solution: implants.

As they say, “We’ve come a long way baby.”

When implants first came to dentistry we were sort of limited in what we could do, but dentistry has figured out many ways to design implant cases so that today’s solutions are better than ever.  In the early days that wasn’t always true.

Take a look at Jim.  He had 8 implants placed twelve years ago.  On top of the implants, the dentist created a bar that was secured to the implants with eight individual two piece abutments.  That bar was screwed into place and a removable denture was placed on the bar...yes! I said removable denture.

Let’s take a time out.

Even twelve years ago the thought of implants meant teeth that stayed in the mouth.  That was and is the biggest selling point for implants.

So Jim had a removable denture secured on eight implants, using 27 components.

We’ve come a long way, baby (LOL).

Some years later the denture didn’t feel quite as secure as it did on day one.  As a fix the dentist placed those two little anchors that are sticking out of the photo on the bottom.

It never worked.

So Jim came to see us.  Our challenge was to give Jim a fixed restoration.  We didn’t need all 8 implants, but for the sake of not being wasteful we tried to use all of them.  Our goal—to make a fixed denture and reduce the components from 27 to 9.

The photo on the right is the result.

Difficult case?  Yes…lots of transfers and putting pieces together.  At the end of the day Jim was happy.

In all my years of practice I don’t think I ever had a happier patient.  For the first time in twelve years he could eat and not worry about his teeth coming out.

I know that sounds like some BS the denture adhesive ads tell us…but this is real.

After treatment he handed me a gift certificate to a local high-end steakhouse.  In retrospect, I should have treated him to the steak.



Blame Your Dental Lab?

March 17, 2015

    One of my favorite movies is Stanley Tucci’s 1996 hit,  The Big Night.  The movie resonated with me.  It’s the story of two brothers who open an Italian restaurant at the Jersey shore.  They continually squabble about how the business should run.  Primo (Tony Shaloub) is the perfectionist chef and Segundo (Stanley Tucci) […]

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GOALS ! A New Look

March 10, 2015

    We all know how important it is to set goals, don’t we?  From the day I began practice, everyone advised me to set production and collection goals, after all goal setting makes perfect business sense. In the late eighties I was enrolled in a so-called “business school for dentists” with the main focus […]

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The Human Side of Dentistry

March 1, 2015

      The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine back in 1969 had strong leanings toward periodontics.  Our dean D. Walter Cohen, after all, was the co-author of dentistry’s premier text in periodontics, the appropriately named Periodontal Therapy.  Future deans helped the pedigree by emphasizing periodontics.  Included in that group was my commanding […]

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Dental Advertising? What’s Your Opinion?

February 17, 2015

  When Mike came in for his six month check-up I asked him the routine questions most dentists ask their patients.  “Have you been flossing?”  I already knew the answer, I get my information from much more reliable sources, but I always ask because this is class time and I’m a teacher as well as […]

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Who is Your Doctor?

February 11, 2015

  Guest Post by Dr. Alan Stern:   Health care has hit rock bottom. And, we’re still digging. I spend several weekends a year treating National Guard soldiers. Not having served in the military (and feeling just a bit guilty over it), I have developed a profound respect for people who volunteer their time and […]

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When You Care More Than They Care

February 2, 2015

    A few weeks ago I had a visit from an old patient who had left my practice and now lived in another city many miles away.   I restored his mouth more than twenty five years ago.  We actually became friends.  He was a science teacher at the local Junior High School, and […]

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In Search of Dignity

January 26, 2015

    On a recent trip to central Pennsylvania, in order to prevent myself from dozing, I read road signs.  Road signs can really get your attention.  They can be just as creative as some of the better television ads I see these days. They can be real conversation starters, like those digital WANTED signs […]

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The Face Behind the Mask

January 18, 2015

There I was in the belly of the beast.  Well, not exactly, but that’s how I felt when they wheeled me into the cardiac catheterization lab at my local hospital.  Before you start worrying, I’m okay.  A little blip on my stress test culminated in this recent episode. Before I get too far along, let […]

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