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ViewPoint: Passing on the wisdom

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." — Mark Twain

One of the first dentists who befriended me when I joined the local dental society was an elderly member of the group who wanted to refer an endodontic patient. There were no endodontists in town at that time. Early in our subsequent friendship he asked me how my new practice was doing. I replied I was seeing quite a few patients, but just meeting expenses. He responded, "The money will come, but for now just appreciate all the good you're doing." Those words of wisdom brought me back to the realization that dentistry is a service, after all.

I have thought about his kindly mentorship over the years and realize we don't necessarily have to be elderly to have wisdom to share. Wisdom is not just the accumulation of knowledge, but the experience of using that knowledge to make the right decisions. Mark Twain, in the quip above, appears to have achieved at least some wisdom by age 21.

Dentists often labor in isolation from their colleagues. This makes our time together, at dental society meetings, study groups or CE courses an important opportunity to share experiences, so that we all don't have to make the same mistakes.

Dentistry has a rich tradition of passing along wisdom. We control our own publications and promote the open exchange of knowledge. Gone are the days of exclusively proprietary publications and treatment modalities.

Retired or semi-retired dentists with a little extra time on their hands have a special opportunity to help their newer colleagues find success and satisfaction in their careers and maintain the high standards we want dentistry to be recognized for. The possibilities are many.

If you can help out as a clinical instructor in a dental or dental hygiene school, you will be reassured about the future of the profession when you work with these eager, inquisitive young people—the best and brightest of their institutions. Watching them struggle to master techniques you can perform almost without thinking will take you back to your school days and an appreciation of your own skills and experience. Perhaps you would have appreciated a wise mentor to help guide you through the sometimes daunting educational process.

Speaking of mentors, our Washington State Dental Association has its own mentor program, which matches established dentists with dental students at the University of Washington. The dentists give advice, encouragement and acceptance to their soon-to-be colleagues.

You can invite a new practitioner to lunch and share your experiences—maybe just some little things you've picked up over the years. By now you know what to look for when hiring staff and you know what questions to ask when trying to find the cause of a patient's pain. You know that bigger is not necessarily better, that indebtedness is something to get out of, and that your colleagues are at the same time your best allies as well as your toughest competitors. You know animosity has no place in the dental family. None of us can afford to be on a less than cordial basis with the dental professionals in our community.

Above all, as mentors we must be role models for newer colleagues. Our actions teach more than our words do. Along with any clinical gems we want to pass along, we should take the opportunity to share our values with students and young practitioners.

With today's expansion of commercialism into dentistry, we need to be clear that the welfare of the patient always comes before the needs or wants of the dentist. Ethics do not appear to be a big part of many fields of endeavor today, but if dentistry weakens its ethical foundation, we soon won't deserve to call it a profession.

Don't let that wisdom gained over the years just sit there, or worse, fade away inside your head. Pass it on. Dentistry can use it.

Dr. Mielke is a member of the Washington State Dental Association Editorial Board. His comments, reprinted here with permission, originally appeared in the April issue of The WSDA News.

Editor's note: Whether they've been in the profession for 50 years or five, experienced dentists have much to share with those just starting out. According to a recent American Dental Association survey, more than 80 percent of dental students have expressed a need for mentor programs at the component and constituent level. The ADA encourages societies to sponsor mentoring programs for new dentists and dental students, and has resources to help get those programs off the ground.

The ADA Committee on the New Dentist offers two free publications, The Making of a Mentor and The Mentor Program Manual: A Resource for Dental Societies. To obtain copies, e-mail

The ADA Council on Dental Education and Licensure also sponsors a Career Guidance Program that includes a mentoring/shadowing component geared toward youth.

There are currently 22 dental societies and dental schools that coordinate programs for youth (elementary school through college)—referring them to local dentists for mentoring, job shadowing opportunities and guidance in pursuing dentistry as a career. A booklet, Future Impressions (Mentoring Initiatives), is also available.

For more information, visit the ADA Web site at, call Ext. 2390 or e-mail