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My View: Dentists and the bright side

May 29, 2015

By Stuart L. Segelnick, D.D.S.

Dr. Stuart L. Segelnick D.D.S.
Stuart L. Segelnick, D.D.S.
Just the other day I was listening to the radio when a catchy tune caught my ear. The music was nice, but there was something wrong with the words. Could I have heard, “I was scared of dentists and the dark?” Yes, that is what I heard coming from a song called “Riptide” by Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy. My first reaction was “Cool, they mentioned dentists!” However, that quickly turned to thoughts of “That’s not good for dental health.”

Switching stations, I started listening to “Secrets,” a pretty fun song by singer-songwriter Mary Lambert in which she divulges her myriad insecurities, one of which — as it turns out — was “I’m scared of the dark and the dentist.” Oh no, not again! Why match dentists with the dark? Images of dentists as bogeymen — imaginary beings used to frighten children — came unbidden to mind. What a shame.

Digging into my childhood memories I can clearly remember that I liked my dentist, but I was definitely afraid of having my teeth filled and dreaded finding out I had a cavity. My mother would tell me how she never liked getting injections because her mouth would be numb for hours, and it was better just to bear the pain and be over with it. Other people of my generation have relayed to me that their parents gave them similar reasons for why they shouldn’t have the shot. It is still hard for me to think back to the pain I experienced just to avoid a few hours of numbness. Recently, a molar of mine cracked and I had to have a crown. I didn’t think twice about asking for a healthy amount of lidocaine, (not Novocain, for nondentists reading this and listening to other songs like one called “Give me Novacaine” (sic) by punk rock band Green Day, which references a local anesthetic drug that hasn’t been used by dentists for decades).

There are a number of reasons people do not visit the dentist, such as money and time, but let’s look at the fear factor. I asked the general practice residents of a local hospital for what they thought were the top reasons why their patients feared going to the dentist. I also asked them to make another list of why their patients should not be afraid of the dentist.

The newly graduated dentists had very comparable answers for why their patients feared the dentist. The top five reasons were: pain; bad past experiences; needles; price of treatment; and the bad news that comes with discovered dental problems. Other reasons given were the sound of the drill and other instruments; movies and other media portraying the dentist as scary; negative stories about dentists heard from friends and family; patients’ embarrassment about the condition of their mouths; not feeling in control while being treated; disease transmission; and white coat syndrome.

The reasons the general practice residents gave for why patients should not be afraid of the dentist were very dissimilar. Their top answers were dentists have great methods of sedation and anesthesia; dentists help repair and maintain patients’ teeth and increase their quality of life; new advanced techniques and instruments; dentists are nice people/dentists aren’t monsters/they mean well/dentists are not judgmental/they respect your feelings; and dentists have alternate, cost effective procedures.

Is fear preventing people’s access to care? Can all the reasons why potential patients avoid the dentist be solved by adding more dentists? What can we as dentists do to solve these very complex issues? Let us stop and think about how we can persuade patients that their fears can be overcome and that we, their dentists, have the means to help them. Why should people not fear going to the dentist?

In the meantime, while we are working on educating the population on the benefits of visiting a dentist and informing them that today there is very little to fear, I think I will shoot off an email to Taylor Swift asking her to write a song about dentists with a bright side in a positive light. Just think of all the people who would be inspired for a healthy life!

This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of the SDDS Bulletin, the publication of the Second District Dental Society of New York. Dr. Segelnick is the editor.