Dentistry – I Didn’t Know It Would Be Like This

I don’t know about you but when I first decided to be a dentist I had no idea what that meant. Yes I pictured myself drilling teeth, getting people out of pain, giving them beautiful smiles, taking x-rays, diagnosing, doing impressions, making crowns and all the other clinical tasks that the day to day of dental practice requires of us. Naively I never imagined that I would have to be doing paper work or scrolling through reams of chart notes everyday, dealing with staff, making phone calls, managing stock and overhead and financial affairs. That I’d be spending hours doing marketing and all that this involves these days with social media, blogs, online reviews and pay per click advertising (makes we weep for the demise of the simple Yellow Pages ad – oh how times how changed!).

Now in my 13-year-old mind my fantasy of dentistry was that I’d be wearing my dental tunic commanding my treatment room, happily drilling away and the rest was not even on my radar.

Dental School Didn’t Prepare Me For Practice

Dental school did little to break this myth, other than doing chart notes, which back then were some basic form of hand written dental speak and abbreviations illegibly scrawled in a paper binder with the patient’s name on front. Dental school had admin staff, sterilisation teams and all these other people who took care of the behind scenes activities that made the dental hospital run. For me I turned up called my patients through and did what was needed. Neat!

So imagine my surprise when I graduated as a fresh faced dentist and walked into my first job. [Between you and me I was terrified, I’d been having nightmares about taking teeth out and patients having heart attacks in the middle of the procedure and me not knowing what to do.] I was working in a branch practice and most the time I was the only dentist on site. I had a 20 year old receptionist and an assistant who was 17. This made me at 22 the oldest person in the office. Suddenly I was in charge of my appointment book, keeping notes, ordering materials, handling insurance forms and referral letters (all hand written back than in 1992), ensuring the team did their roles and that targets were met. At first this was fun, as a new grad my book wasn’t overscheduled and as I was still so painfully slow I was given the time I needed for each procedure. However, after 6 months I was finding my feet and realizing that if I didn’t speed up and produce more dentistry that not only was I falling short of my targets I was taking so little home in my pay package that I was barely living any better than I did when I was a student.

So I started to reduce the length of time I booked people in for and looked for ways to save time and be more efficient. I began to present bigger cases and more cosmetic work and book quadrant or even half mouth dentistry. Suddenly I had this overly tight schedule and I still had to manage the office and my small team. Oh and I simply hated (and still do) running even 5 minutes late. I put enormous pressure on myself to be perfect and to adhere to my crazy schedule.

Heading For Burnout

I found myself running on pure adrenaline, backed up by caffeine as my coffee habit soared from 3 cups a day to almost 10 (and more as my career went on). I was like the energiser bunny on speed, but hey that was ok wasn’t it as I was now crushing my workload and starting to make some money. What I conveniently chose to ignore was that I’d gained a few pounds, developed this little heart palpitation thing and was finding it increasingly hard to sleep. I was irritable and short-tempered and would blow hot and cold if even the tiniest thing didn’t go well. And this became my norm, my way of working for the next 15 odd years of my career. This was my coping mechanism as I cycled through stress and exhaustion and insomnia – using coffee, food, exercise and alcohol and my emotions to fuel my way through the cycle of being over wrought and overtired.

I was tired, I cried on my way to the office, I got sick a lot, I lost my temper a lot, I resented my patients, I yelled at my team (a lot) and then tired to kid myself I was ok because I was doing 15 hours of exercise a week and my weight was in a healthy range. I’d fall asleep during diner, drink too much at weekends and look if I’m honest most weeknights too. I lived for my holidays and dreamt of early retirement and the one day when all this would simply stop.

What I didn’t realise then was that I was burnt out. I had pushed myself so hard honing my skills and time efficiency, seeing as many patients a day as I could muster that I had failed to take care of the number one asset. I had put myself, my health and my needs last, to the point where I was mentally spent and physically exhausted. I had sacrificed myself to be a dentist and take on all that the role required and forgotten to nourish and look after the person, the me – Rachel who at 13 had dreamt of being a dentist and helping people. But who was I helping when I was exhausted, miserable, frustrated and totally over it.

Sadly this story is not uncommon, we could insert the names of many dentists into this story, perhaps even yours as I’m sure there are aspects of this that you relate to, I bet you are even saying to yourself oh gee that’s me I feel like that.

And for many dentists they simply can’t get out of this cycle they are caught in trying to make ends met and being all things to all people while their sense of self and wellbeing is eroded away until it becomes all they know and they can’t see any way out.
Sadly for many the despair becomes too great to bear and for them the only option appears to be to end it all. I’ve known far too many of my wonderful colleagues suicide because they get caught in this dreadful spiral. I’ve seen too many great people end up burnt out and depressed and have to cut their career short because they simply can’t cope. And too many going through the motions everyday in misery, hoping things will get better but paralysed by inaction and indecision unable to see a way forward to actually make the changes required for that to happen.

Dentistry A Rewarding Career

We deserve to have a fulfilling, rewarding career without having to be overwhelmed, stressed or financially burdened. We deserve to enjoy our job and still have time to care for ourselves and nurture our relationships. Do we have to settle for stress and dissatisfaction, is that how dentistry is supposed to be? Did we not read that in the fine print when we were handed our degrees?

Thankfully for me this is not where my story ends or continues; I was able to turn things around and come back from burnout to actually be more successful than I could ever have imagined. But I didn’t do it alone, I had to face the cold hard facts and reach out for support and be willing to make big changes in my life and the way I worked which I’ll share with you in my blogs and videos.

I believe we are all here for a reason that we bring something unique to share. It is my firm belief that I went through all that I did to be able to share my journey and my lessons with you. This way you don’t have to fall to rock bottom before you realise things aren’t working for you and I can help you to have what you need to be successful and happy and love your dentistry again.