Spring 2017

The Person Behind the Mouth

The connections with our patients are the bedrock of dentistry.

 By Mary Catherine “Katie” Talmo, D10

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Illustration: Ward Schumaker

This summer, one of my students in the predoctoral clinic excitedly showed me the thank-you gift a patient had brought him: a homegrown heirloom tomato. I knew then that we had been successful in the most challenging aspect of educating this young man. He had mastered the ability to develop a relationship with his patient. The dentistry would be the easy part.

I have always maintained that the practice of dentistry is every bit as much about people and relationships as it is about the technical nuances of the profession. As I reflect upon my experience at Tufts School of Dental Medicine as a student, faculty member and active member of the alumni association, what stands out the most are the people. In my private practice, which I took over from my father after he enjoyed more than 50 years in the profession, I have had more than one patient tell me that his or her relationship with our practice has been the most enduring one of their lives. This is a testimonial to the beauty of the dental profession as I see it: the ability to create close and lasting relationships with the people we are caring for.

Very often, a general dentist spends more time with her patients and sees them more frequently than their primary-care physician. This notion was impressed upon me early on at Tufts, well before I even began treating patients. In our oral pathology and medicine classes, we were frequently reminded that as dentists, many of us would see our patients at least twice a year, and as a result, we may be in a position to identify signs and symptoms of more serious systemic disease. I am a better dentist for having understood this fact early on and for appreciating the enormity of the responsibility implied within that relationship.

We must remain true to those values that distinguish a Tufts dental education: a personal approach to patient care.

As a student, whether I was in the throes of endless hours of studying during exam blocks or weekends spent completing lab work, my thoughts often turned to how fortunate I was to be surrounded by competent and dedicated instructors. It always struck me that our instructors, who may not necessarily have been teachers by training, had given great reflection upon the learning process. It is perhaps the most crucial quality of a good teacher.

As a recent graduate, and now an instructor, I understand the challenges inherent to both sides. The daily rigors and stresses of dental school are all-too-vivid memories. But now, as a faculty member, I have a greater appreciation for the necessity of engaging our students in critical thinking and of the vast knowledge base they need to be skillful clinicians. At a time of tremendous technological advancement in dentistry, I see that we are headed toward making dental procedures faster and more comfortable for our patients. It is imperative that we train our students to be fluent with this technology and remain on the cutting edge. However, as dentistry becomes easier and more efficient, we run the risk of making it more impersonal. With that in mind, we must remain true to those values that distinguish a Tufts dental education: a personal approach to patient care.

As I walk through the clinic, I routinely witness heartwarming exchanges between students and their patients. They inquire about each other’s families; there is a genuine interest and care. To me, Tufts is so much more than a dental school. It represents the cooperative effort of classmates who support one another and educators who care; of dental providers and their patients; of countless administrators and support staff. It is a network and a family.

Mary Catherine “Katie” Talmo is an assistant clinical professor at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, a member of the dental school’s board of advisors and a director of the Tufts University Dental Alumni Association. She maintains a private practice in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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