Winter 2016

The Decisions That Let Us Sleep At Night

The importance of earning, and keeping, our patients’ trust 

By Austin Perera, D15

I don’t know if I ever truly appreciated a smile until I rushed to deliver a temporary front denture to a patient before Christmas so that he would be able to smile for the holidays. I extended my hand to shake his. He teared up, gave me a big bear hug and said, “You’re the man.”

Dentists don’t just treat patients’ oral health problems. We coach them through their worries, fears and doubts as they lie under bright lights, trusting us with the one face they have to show the world.

Illustration: Ward Schumaker

Illustration: Ward Schumaker

Before applying to dental school, I spent time with a dentist in my family. When he worked, you could tell he had developed those tricks and techniques over many years of experience. I was eagerly trying to note them, thinking it might somehow be useful to me later, once I understood what was actually going on. He told me not to worry about that. Your dental school, he said, will teach you everything you need to be a good dentist. He said the best dentists aren’t the ones who have the tips and tricks; they’re the ones who don’t stray from what they were taught and who don’t take shortcuts and make compromises.

And so it’s going to be hard, and it should be. Who else will stand up for our patients? Not their insurance companies, not the manufacturers, not the authors of whatever blog post a patient read online before coming to your office. You must show your patients that we represent their best interests. Make the decisions that will let you sleep at night. No one else will do that for you. Think about what you’ve done to get here.

To my D15 classmates, we did not leave dental school as the same people we were when we arrived. We have been tested, fired and work-hardened in that crucible we call a clinic. So I offer you this advice:

Be proud. You are in a timeless career, taught to you by a school that’s been teaching it for nearly 150 years. But even 150 years is a blink of an eye compared to the thousands of years over which civilization has developed dental work. Everything that has been learned and experienced in that history, Tufts has attempted to distill and give you. Everything you have acquired you now carry inside you.

Be humble. It feels like we went through years of constant struggle, but it doesn’t take long to scan the news and realize how incredibly fortunate we are. Remember the people without whom you wouldn’t have gotten this far. Share the rewards of your career with the people who wanted nothing else than to see you here, and those rewards will never feel diminished.

Be a student your whole life. Question the dogma. We live in a consumerist society, eager to be sold what they want us to hear. Evidence-based dentistry is not a trend; it’s a value. It’s a reminder that research and scientific justification must be at the heart of everything we do.

Represent each other. When you do excellent work, it not only reflects well on you, but on all of us. Every decision you make has to be one that any of us could stand behind. And our faculty have haunted us enough to know what those decisions are. Our work is our signature. And superior work must be our standard of care.

Fight for your field. We are custodians of this career. Do not let anyone question whether you are ambivalent about your field. Be active; be a spokesperson; be involved. Within any institution that shares our values and commitments, you will be welcomed.

I will see you in the field.

Austin Perera, a resident in the postgraduate endodontics program at Tufts, was president of the School of Dental Medicine’s Class of 2015. This article is adapted from the speech he delivered at commencement on May 17, 2015. 

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