The Unfinished Dentist


Ask, “What Kind of Dentist Do I Want to Be?”

I am often asked what the difference is between dentists who are productive and profitable compared to those who seem to struggle. My answer is simple—it’s their mindset. The dentists who produce at the highest levels are generally practitioners of a philosophy I like to call “the unfinished dentist.”

Every year, new dentists receive their diplomas and embark into practice all across the nation. For many, graduating from dental school is seen as the completion of the bulk of their education as dental professionals. In truth, it is. However it shouldn’t be viewed as the end of learning, but rather the beginning of an educational journey that lasts until retirement.

Simply showing up to work every day, doing the things that you learned in dental school, and just getting faster at them is not the same as having an active commitment to learning. Instead, it is a recipe for dental mediocrity that will rob you of your potential and your patients of the outcomes they need and deserve.

You might be thinking that this doesn’t apply to you, but before you decide, answer a couple of questions. First, have you ever done a full arch reconstruction? If the answer is no, then what is your goal to make this a reality in the next 12 months? Next, what advanced procedure or procedures currently make you feel uneasy or inspire within you a sense of fear?

The follow-up question is how do you intend to move past such feelings and start doing those procedures regularly, making sure to present the option to every patient who is in need of such treatment?

An unfinished dentist is a practitioner who is constantly learning and working at the edge of their comfort zone—even on a daily basis. I have met dentists who have been out of school for more than 10 years and have never prepped more than four units in a single session.

I have also met dentists with more than a decade’s worth of experience practicing dentistry who still take more than an hour to prepare a single tooth. Experience that isn’t constantly building towards higher levels of skill is a manifestation of the conscious or subconscious belief that one has enough knowledge to “get by.”

The concept of the unfinished dentist refutes such a mindset in purposeful ways. The Aristotelian motto of “the more I know, the more I don’t know” is the mantra of dentists who are truly dedicated to practicing the art of dentistry.

As a young dentist, I remember doing a full arch reconstruction on the wife of a good friend. The case turned out well and it was a vast improvement for the patient. Over the years, as I had the opportunity to visit with this friend and his wife, I could see in her smile things that could be improved because I had learned new techniques and approaches that would yield even better results.

During one of her checkups, I completed her exam and told her that I was going to redo her teeth at no charge. She looked at me and said that she thought her teeth were fine and she was happy with their current state.

I replied, “Now I am a better dentist than when I did your case. And because I want your smile to provide a lifetime of benefit, I want to redo it.” And I did. For me, the goal for every case has been to continue the evolution of my skills in the service of my patients.

My invitation to you, regardless of where you are at in your career—and especially if you are just starting out—is that you become dedicated to the principle of the unfinished dentist. There are a number of ways you can do this, but above all else, you should commit yourself to always presenting the best option to your patients.

If there are times you have suggested a less-than-optimal treatment option because you feared doing a required procedure or technique, get the necessary training in that procedure. If you feel like your skills are not advancing as quickly as they could, find a mentor and be humble as you seek direction and guidance. Resolve to put into practice what he or she tells you needs to be done.

A great dentist isn’t self-made, and it is that realization that is at the heart of becoming an unfinished dentist. Even at this point in my career, I can proudly say I’m not finished. There are still many things to learn, and a great many things to be done.

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Dr. Dick Barnes is the leader in practice development for today’s cosmetic practice. A graduate of Marquette Dental School, he began his general dentistry practice in Rialto, California. As his practice, skills and reputation grew, he became known as one of the world leaders in cosmetic dentistry. In addition, Dr. Barnes taught at Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California, at their respective dental schools.