Fears of the dentist

Faces

Most people are very apprehensive about making a visit to the dentist. But, how many dentists are filled with apprehension at the prospect of seeing patients? Almost every day during my 35 years of practising dentistry, I walked into my surgery with a feeling of worry, concern about what might happen during the day.

The average non-dental person might not realise that treating patients is like walking on thin ice. With many patients in the UK just itching to sue the dentists, whom they fear, even the slightest thing might lead to a legal confrontation between the patient and the dentist. Clearly when a patient suspects that the dentist has made a clinical error, pulled the wrong tooth for example or made a filling that keeps failing, recourse to compensation is sometimes reasonable. However, something far less ‘life-threatening’ like a verbal misunderstanding can lead a litigious person to attempt to obtain remedial compensation. So, to avoid trouble and also to ensure that a patient leaves satisfied, the prudent dentist must treat each patient with tact, delicately, and clinical excellence. All that seems quite reasonable.

However, there are patients, whom the dentist dreads. The very sight of their name on the day’s appointment list can ruin the dentist’s day from the moment he spots it. These people, many of whom I wish I had been courageous enough to dismiss, often exploit the dentist’s desire to provide them with excellence. They ask for the impossible, or for things they know that they cannot possibly afford, and they are never satisfied. Worse still, they keep coming back to the surgery for minor matters, which are often unresolvable because of their sad personalities. I may sound a bit harsh, but many of the persistent complainers that I saw were unemployed, receiving their treatment free of charge (because of state subsidies), and had little else to do apart from sit in dentists’ waiting rooms.

Then, there are the dental obsessives. These patients are often quite charming until they reach the subject of their teeth. Even what you and I might hardly notice becomes a major problem for them, even a life crisis. They will keep asking the dentist to redo some small repair on a tooth because they, and only they, can perceive that there is some minute imperfection. And because of fear of complaints and litigation, I used to plough on with these people and long for retirement. Sometimes, I felt like telling them that in the grand scheme of life, a minor ‘defect’ in the teeth is nothing compared with having a major illness, or starving during a famine, or being injured in a traffic accident, but I ‘bit my tongue’.

Despite my continual anxiety about keeping the patients on my side, there was the odd occasion when a patient was genuinely grateful for something I had done. Those expressions of gratitude were worth more to me than whatever fee my treatment had attracted.

So, next time you have to visit the dentist and are filled with fear, spare a thought for the dentist, who might well be feeling the same as you, but cannot show it because it would wreck your confidence in him or her.