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The Human Side of Dentistry

March 1, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barry @ 11:04 PM





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 officer in the U.S. Army Dental Corps, Dr. Jay Siebert, followed by the renowned Swedish periodontist, Dr. Jan Lindhe.

Yes…saving teeth, no matter what, was the theme of dentistry back in the sixties and seventies.

I remember a funny little fact about Dr. Cohen’s book.  One chapter, written by the popular instructor, Dr. John Derbyshire, was dedicated to the subject of human motivation.  That’s right, human motivation was recognized as a discipline that dentists needed to consider.

The thing I remember most about that chapter was that it was just a few pages long in a book of over 1200 pages.

Things have changed an awful lot in the world of periodontics – but human motivation hasn’t changed much at all.

A few weeks ago I was in a steam room at my gym.  I got into a sticky debate with a psychologist about what the role of today’s health care professionals encompassed.  Amazingly he was firmly attached to the idea of the doctor being a technician.  I tried to convince him of the behavioral component, but he would have none of it.  And he is a psychologist.

I wondered how physicians see their jobs, or how the public views our role?  There is no doubt that the role of health care professionals has changed since 1969…and many still don’t see human motivation as part of that job.

Technology has changed everything in all fields.

Some say the democratization of medicine will enable patients to access all of their records from the cloud, have the ability to take their own tests through apps and sensors (iWatch anyone?), and even have Skype consults with doctors.  This will lower the need for physicians in the future…and the education they presently supply.

Of course, hands on physicians, surgeons, will stay as busy as ever.

But the information will be democratized.  Your smartphone will be the key to your healthcare.

Dentists do more than just provide and interpret information…we are hands on, more like surgeons.  Dentists will not be replaced by smartphones in the future.  Sure technology will rule, but patients will still come in with the same fears and dread they had back in 1969.  This is the human side of dentistry…the same component that helps people to make major changes in their lives like smoking cessation and weight loss, disciplines fraught with objections like fear, money, sense of urgency…that are not life mandated.

There is no app for that. 

The successful dentist of the future will have to be adept in the latest digital technology no doubt.  If you are a Luddite and refuse to get on the train it will cost you…but being adept in human interaction may just be your bigger ticket to success.

If I were writing Periodontal Therapy today I certainly would devote more pages to the chapter on human motivation.








  1. It has always been my belief that drive beats brains any day of the week. I have to believe that because I am not very smart. In fact, I have the privilege of being rejected from almost every dental school in the country 3 y ears in a row.

    As I wa about to enter my senior year of dental school, I was hit by a car resulting in the amputation of my leg and one of the world’s first limb reattachments. When I saw my surgeon shortly after surgery, he told me that he reattached my leg but he was not sure that I would keep it. I looked him in the eye and said, “You put it on and I will keep it on.” Within 18 months, I was out running 5 miles.

    I begged the Dean to let me return to dental school and after an hour of refusing to let me return, He got up and said, “Ok you can come back but you can’t graduate with your class.” And stormed out of the room. I was on the stage with my classmates.

    When I had a total knee replacement in my reattached leg two years ago, my surgeon, one of the best in the world, told me that I would be out of work for 2-3 months. On the 26th day, I returned to work without the benefit of any physical therapy.

    Human motivation is the key to human success. Yes, there must be some intelligence and some talent but drive is what makes our species successful.

    Comment by Gerald Benjamin — March 2, 2015 @ 1:29 AM

  2. Luck and fate play more of a role than people realize, or admit to. They like to think it was all them.

    Comment by Roger — March 2, 2015 @ 9:22 AM

  3. What a great and inspiring story Gerald. Not too many people would have responded like that…I have seen many quit with a lot less adversity.
    The only thing I would add is that our greatest enemy is fear…something you certainly have conquered.

    Comment by Barry Polansky — March 2, 2015 @ 9:52 AM

  4. Roger—that’s not very inspiring.

    Comment by Barry Polansky — March 2, 2015 @ 9:52 AM

  5. Roger
    If life is basically a consequence of luck and fate then why do we teach our children to work hard? And why strive for excellence if everything boils down to things that are out of our control?
    If I am not responsible for the majority of my destiny then why did I spend 5,000 hours of my life taking Continuing Education and spend $5 million in the process?
    Perhaps someone can explain to their children why they are so mediocre by telling them that fate and bad luck have dealt them a bad hand in life.

    Comment by Gerald — March 2, 2015 @ 10:10 AM

  6. Gerald…research and science is on your side. The work of Carolyn Dweck from Stanford, describes two types of mindsets…the fixed mindset where everything is a matter of fate beyond our control…and a growth mindset where growth is all about control. Psychologists speak about the internal and external locus of control…same idea. I could go on but the reality is as you say…what good is it to think the way Roger is thinking?

    Comment by Barry Polansky — March 2, 2015 @ 10:18 AM

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