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My Journey to Patient Centered Dentistry

Rodney Baier, DDS
September 18, 2023

Dentist philosopher L.D. Pankey, when talking about the assimilation of knowledge, would say, “First you get it in your hands, then your head, and finally in your heart” meaning objective understanding and competence is only the FIRST step in becoming a complete dentist.

This of course, was a hard message to hear as a young clinician, because after finishing dental school and diving into advanced comprehensive restorative training, I was READY to practice as a “comprehensive dentist.” Unfortunately, most of my patients didn’t get the memo. Most looked at me suspiciously, others left.

Fortunately, a few allowed me to perform (and “perform” is the perfect word for it) my complete exam, study models and photography. Then, I would spend hours waxing up cases, and preparing a thorough report containing all of my findings and recommendations. And finally, a “case presentation” appointment would be scheduled where I would unveil the brilliance of my complete dentistry, about which they would surely be impressed, and have no alternative but to say “yes”! From there, it was then easy to visualize a completely organized schedule with a projected level of income of my choice based upon how hard I wanted to work, and the number of hours I was willing to commit to being at the office. It all sounded so perfectly logical, and it all fit quite well with my left brain learning worldview of dentistry.

However, it did not work out that way for me very often. I wasn’t alone in this either! I have spoken and consulted with literally hundreds of dentists who have experienced the same frustrations. Many ultimately gave up the effort to try and practice comprehensive relationship based dentistry. Others took their practice to near bankruptcy via their determination.

You see, we missed Dr. Pankey’s message the first pass through, and some even after the next two or three passes through. I failed to recognize that the whole concept of complete care hinged on how THE PATIENT felt, what THEY wanted, and what the solution meant TO THEM. It was only after this difficult realization that things began to improve for me and my practice. The work of many mentors helped me to make some critical adjustments regarding how I communicated with patients – and perhaps even more critically – when.

Patient centered dentistry is just that – patient centered, not treatment centered. This means that I must first come to appreciate each person first without imposing our beliefs and expectations upon them. This is a process which involves understanding your feelings and problems about your oral health first, before understanding or discussing, solutions. We must first be able to grasp the contextual meaning of dentistry in each patient’s life…and by so doing better appreciate THEIR reality.

Over time, I’ve become better at doing this, and I can feel that my knowledge has reached my heart, and the hearts of my patients as well. As the year comes to a close, I am reminded even more of how very fortunate we are to have wonderful patients that appreciate and trust the journey we take them on. The journey that ultimately leads to greater understanding of their oral health and superior self confidence in their smile.

If you someone you know is seeking the care that comes with dentistry which is truly patient centered, we hope you feel confident in sharing our name.

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