Right, lovely dental folks - I'd like you to listen, please...
You know the scenario - it's 4.45pm on a Friday afternoon and a patient rings with severe toothache; they've had it for several weeks, and they are ringing now because they are "not sure they can make it through the weekend". A check on their records reveals two failed appointments for a filling which needed doing over a year ago and they have never been back in touch since then. Oh, and you also told them they needed to see the hygienist for regular appointments too, and they've never been.
Prevention. You teach it to your patients. All the time. Often repeatedly. At the end of the day, it's up to the patient whether or not they choose to take responsibility for their own dental health - as their dentist you know there is only so much you can do...
As a psychotherapist, this is what I see when I look at the dental profession: so many surveys measuring the catastrophic levels of stress in the profession; so many posts on social media complaining about mental distress; (and yes, it's bad - in many cases it's truly heartbreaking); and yet so many dentists are clearly not taking any responsibility for their own mental health.
Clients will often come to me because they have reached the psychological equivalent of the severe toothache patient described above; so we have to begin by firefighting the situation they have found themselves in... and just like that toothache, it's often been coming on for a very long time. Sometimes for years... and they've ignored the signs.
But here's the thing... Even if you are feeling absolutely fine right now, how many of you are actually taking an active responsibility in making sure you stay that way by maintaining your own mental health? (I know many of you are, which is fantastic - I also know that many, many more are not...) Are you even aware that there are very definite measures you can put in place to help prevent future burnout and chronic stress? Are you just like the patient with toothache who is aware that oral hygiene is probably something they should have been doing, and they are still not doing it? Are you willing to wait until you experience symptoms of chronic stress, mental breakdown and burnout before you decide to take some action?
Here are some suggestions, and my invitation to you is that you look into at least one of these right now (yes, even though you are feeling fine at the moment):
If you are feeling fine because you are already doing at least one of those, then that's marvellous - I salute you.
My mother always used to tell us that, "Something always happens when you don't do as you're told..." I've no doubt that's what you think when the irregularly attending, poor oral hygiene patient turns up yet again with an abscess. But remember the wise words of Virginia Satir, "Life isn't the way it's meant to be - it is the way it is. It's how we cope with it that makes the difference."
That difference has to start with you. And if you need some help to rediscover your own inner resources, please just ask.
As a psychotherapeutic coach I offer regular, ongoing, preventive, confidential support to dentists in the UK and abroad, as well as in-depth therapy when it's needed; just as you do for your patients. I also offer small group CPD courses specifically for dentists on how to change your relationship with stress.
It is interesting how we all become creatures of habit. The very act of doing something over and over in the same way creates a neurological pathway in our brain, so that the behaviour becomes automatic, and a habit (or ‘strategy’ in NLP terms) is born. We all develop our own routines and ways of doing things – and this is no different for the canine members of staff.
For Theo and Lily, breakfast is not complete unless they have been offered at least one blueberry (or possibly raspberry – they are quite happy with either) and will gaze at us with vaguely affronted expressions if this offering is not forthcoming for any reason. Daisy quite likes to be offered one so she can sniff it and decide she doesn’t actually want it… A piece of toast crust is also a necessary part of the breakfast routine (a not inconsiderable drain on one’s toast resources when we have all six dogs in the house!) before their actual breakfast, followed by a leisurely bimble around the garden…
When we go out, it is essential to provide a small gift in recompense for the loss of our company – a biscuit will suffice – but there is generally much fuss made over the possibility that we might just forget, as we prepare to leave… calm is restored by the lifting of the biscuit jar lid!
It is interesting how quickly a new part of the routine is accepted and becomes habitual (particularly if it involves food!). Not so long ago, we introduced those chewy dental sticks to the suppertime regime, and it only took a couple of days for this to become an accepted fact, and for Daisy to start demanding one immediately after finishing her supper.
So, what if we decide we would like to create a new and useful habit in our own lives, such as using a new stress management skill, or improving oral hygiene by daily flossing…? Sometimes the idea of making changes to our existing lifestyle can just seem too big. Conventional wisdom says that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit – but we can reduce this dramatically through setting a positive, specific goal, and then attaching our new “habit” onto something that we already do. For our oral hygiene patient, for example, it’s easy to add flossing onto an existing habit of brushing (provided that habit is already in place!).
Small change is always easier to achieve than big change, so the smaller the habit you want to create, the easier it is to incorporate into your life. Small habits are things you can do at least once a day, in perhaps less than a minute, without too much effort. You can design them to take place after an existing habit that already happens in your life – and if you congratulate yourself after each time you successfully complete your new habit (in other words, a metaphorical pat on the head and a dog biscuit), this also means that your new habit is associated with positive emotions in your mind, which helps to reinforce it.
So easy, and so simple… after only five days of successfully performing your new small habit, you will have set in motion the possibility of a whole new way of being. Small change really does lead to big change.
...and the Canine Members of Staff