My View: Will the perfect doctor please stand up?

Joe Vaughn, D.M.D.

I’ll never forget the night that the most popular guy at my high school broke down and cried on my shoulder minutes after a varsity basketball playoff game.

We were huge underdogs to the No. 1 team in our division and were playing on their home court. We probably played our best game of the year that night, but we lost at the final buzzer, bringing our season to a painful end. As an 11th grade basketball player in rural Alabama, there was nothing more important in the world than winning that game and proving our relevance and worth as a team.

I’ll always remember that moment, standing in the rain in the parking lot out behind the gym, consoling my teammate. I’ll remember it because it was a moment of pure vulnerability for him. Completely out of character for one of the coolest, smoothest guys that I have ever known. In that moment, I realized that even the most untouchable guy at my high school...was human. He was just like me, felt the same things I felt, experienced the same emotions that I did.

That happened 14 years ago. But like many of those defining moments in our lives, the memory has remained submerged in mint condition, just waiting for the right time to resurface to the spotlight. For me, it happened the other day as I was watching a Dr. Frank Spear lecture online.

It was standard Spear, talking about how to elevate your practice to the next level. But then about halfway through...

“I’d go to work every day, see a full schedule...and feel like I was in jail.”

What did he just say?

Dr. Frank Spear, the founder of Spear Education and one of the most respected dentists in the world, has had days where he was...stressed out? Discontent? Even unhappy?

“You mean...he’s just like me?”

This really resonated with me. So much so that I went back and listened to his story again. It was refreshing to hear a confession of weakness, when usually all I see and interact with socially is a world of perfection.

Everybody’s a rock star on Instagram these days.

Intense, bloody surgeries (but always successful). Incredible cosmetic rehabilitations (and in only two visits with no refinements because that’s just how good our protocol is!). Beautiful occlusal composite staining on a maxillary second molar (but why though?).

I think we need more vulnerability in our profession. I think we need to pull back the reins a bit on the digital ego stroke that has become the world of dental Instagram.

Because the honest-to-tooth truth? That stuff isn’t the full reality. The truth is that everybody has failures. Everybody has had bad days. Everybody has made mistakes. And personally, I think you lose some credibility if you pretend otherwise.

After that night in high school, I never saw my teammate the same way again. I not only respected him more. Our friendship was stronger. Our team bond was stronger.

With just one brief moment of weakness, Dr. Spear became more to me than just a guy on a screen. He became part of our story as dentists. A success story, for sure. But a believable and relatable success story that I really connected with and that I really learned from. I’m thankful that there are still dentists out there who are willing to talk about their un-Instagrammable days. Because it’s becoming increasingly more taboo.

Just last night, I sat in a lecture about a relatively new composite technique. And throughout the presentation, the presenter (who indeed has a considerable Instagram presence) would put a slide up that had a photo of their composite work and a photo of a friend’s composite work.

“So here is my work on the left and this is my friend’s work on the right. Pretty similar situations but our techniques are different. And here is the two year follow-up, and you see his has already failed. But mine did not.” And it went on like this throughout the presentation.

How did we get here?

If you do amazing work, that’s awesome. There’s legitimate reason to celebrate that and I think you should show others your
amazing work.

But let’s also be honest. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s find where pride and humility meet, and let’s all learn from each other in that space. Where there’s no more fear of judgment. No more worry about making mistakes. No more “arms race” of who can get the most followers, the most likes, the most whatever. Instead, it’s just a bunch of imperfect dentists connecting and learning and collectively moving the profession forward.

I want to follow that Instagram page.

There used to be a phrase I’d hear all the time in dental school. “Your career will be a lifetime of making mistakes and then learning from them. That’s why they call it the practice of dentistry.”

But what’s ironic is that as a practicing dentist, I don’t hear that anymore. And it’s in this culture of never showing your cards that it takes constant reminders to realize that it’s OK if I make a mistake. Yeah, mistakes are no fun. Yeah, mistakes hurt ... for a moment. But then the very next moment?

I’m a better dentist.

This editorial, reprinted with permission, originally appeared Feb. 27 in the New Dentist Now blog, Dr. Joe Vaughn is a general dentist who graduated from the University of Alabama and currently practices in Seattle, WA. He works both as an associate in a private practice as well as in a public health clinic. Dr. Vaughn currently serves in roles with both the Seattle King County Dental Society and the Washington State Dental Association.

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