Dentistry and Football – A fun analogy this time of year!

A question you may have asked before:

Aren’t all dentists pretty much the same?

Does it matter where I go to get my care?

The simple answers? No AND yes! All practicing dentists have several things in common: we went to dental school for at least 4 years, we got licensed by the state board, and we have either DDS or DMD after our names. While there are many other similarities I won’t bore you with, there are some key differences that you should know about as an informed consumer of healthcare.

First of all, is a dentist a general practitioner or a specialist? The majority of oral healthcare providers are general dentists, those who typically see patients of all ages and perform a wide variety of procedures. Think of us as the primary care physicians or family doctors for your oral health. Most of us do a little bit of everything and are really jazzed about being the “quarterbacks of the dental care team.” Next there are specialists. An endodontist is a dentist who performs root canals and other related procedures exclusively. Root canals get a bad rap, but by and large, endodontists relieve much more pain than they cause.

Orthodontists are experts at moving teeth. Braces are not just for kids – adults can have straight teeth too! Periodontists focus on the health of the tissues surrounding your teeth, namely the gums and the bone. If you need gum surgery, these are your people! Prosthodontists are wizards at replacing missing teeth. They do everything from dentures to implants to crowns and lots of interesting combinations thereof. Oral radiologists are few and far between, but these cool professionals can interpret both x-rays and CT scans in very sophisticated ways. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are often both a dentist and a medical doctor. Talk about lots of years of school! Oral pathologists take pieces of tissue submitted for biopsy and figure out what the heck it is. Pediatric dentists are some of the nicest people you’ve ever met and their offices get to have fun themes – I went to mine until I was far too old because the thought of not being able to play pac-man and get a prize at the end was devastating…

What does all of this have to do with football? Well, as I mentioned before, general dentists such as myself are like the quarterbacks of the oral healthcare team. We lead the huddle, keep the team on target to accomplish our goals, and pass the ball to those with special skills who can make touchdowns. As a quarterback, it’s important to know the strengths of the individuals on our team. We don’t want to throw the ball to someone who will drop it. As such, the specialists I refer my patients to are highly vetted individuals. I would not send a patient to any other dental provider if I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing him/her myself. Most of the time, though, I can get a touchdown without the assistance of a specialist. I can usually run the ball, stiff-arm my way out of tackles, and slide into the end zone. There are certainly times that I need to hand it off, but for the most part, I got this!

Not all quarterbacks are created equal. A well-rounded skill set is a very valuable thing. In dentistry, skill develops with experience. The fine hand-skills that are necessary to be a good dentist do not come naturally to most (there are some very lucky exceptions – we despised them in dental school!) One of my favorite instructors would always say, “You weren’t born a dentist!” when one of my classmates or I was frustrated with how hard the skills were to learn. Unlike many dentists, I completed a residency program after I graduated from dental school. This general practice residency was an intense year of training that included work in the hospital, the dental clinic and the operating room. I got to feel like a “real doctor” for awhile, tagging along with the ENT residents in the OR and wearing a pager. That feeling became less desirable at 11:30pm when the pager went off and I had to crawl out of bed to go extract a tooth in the emergency room! Hospitals and dental residency programs have a way of attracting very complicated patients. I got to be involved with cases that most dentists don’t see or do for many years (if ever) in private practice. I had the privilege of one-on-one time with oral surgeons, prosthodontists, endodontists and other specialists when I was treating complex cases. It gave me a great perspective on healthcare in general and greatly expanded my skills as a fledgling dentist. It was an awesome year!

I hope that as an informed consumer you will make careful choices regarding your healthcare. Dentistry should be no exception. Find a dentist whom you trust, who has the skills needed to take care of your specific concerns, and who will be your quarterback. It doesn’t hurt if they have an awesome team, a comfortable office, and cool technology. Are you ready to get Inspired?

– Kari