Are You the Dentist? You Look Young…How Long Have You Been Doing This?
New Grads and Dentists Who Look Young
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain
“Aren’t you too young to be a dentist?” your patient asks as they cautiously lift a single eye-brow and size you up. You aren’t quite sure if they are being rude, if they’re nervous, or if they’re just trying to make casual conversation. Virtually every new dentist has gone through the awkward moment when you are treating patients your first couple years out of school — especially in that very first year. Hey, maybe the person asking you this really IS the first patient you’ve ever seen as a ‘real dentist.’ Or maybe not. Maybe you are 35 years old and still look like a 20-something and you’ve managed these age and appearance related questions more times than you can count.
Being a solo practice owner myself at only 27 years old. The question was rampant. (Click here to watch my very first Daily Vlog video from my first day treating patients in my practice.). Yes I’ve definitely matured and evolved significantly beyond my 27 year old self. But my 27 year old self could definitely far and away hold his own as a doctor and as a practice owner. No reason to feel bad about a patient questioning your youth.
The fact of the matter is – I strongly believe from my own experience that the majority of patients who ask questions like this are doing so PRIMARILY just to make conversation. After all, they just met you. They know nothing else about you at this point other than what they see. And what they see is that you look about 30 years younger than their last dentist who had grey hair.
So, it’s a noticeably striking difference from a visual perspective – which again is all they really have to go off of right now. Secondarily, they are testing you. Testing you with some softball questions to quell that little anxiety in the back of their minds that wonders if you really know what you’re doing with that needle and with that drill.
I know there are some of you out there who have been asked questions like this and actually had it shake your confidence, maybe hurt your feelings, maybe question if you really are ‘good enough yet.’ A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health evaluated a case sample size of 3 quarter of a million people across multiple hospitals around the country (a very sizable sample size) and examined the MORTALITY rate 30-days post hospital admission. They looked at the mortality rate in correlation with the age of the physician the patient was assigned to. Lo and behold, there was a very clear, and very linear trend. As the physician’s age increased, the mortality rate of the patients increased. With the lowest mortality rates being under the care of doctors under the age of 40. And the highest mortality rates being under the care of doctors over the age of 60.
Point being — so what if you look young? You ARE young! And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Where older doctors are more versed with experience and wisdom – younger doctors may be more versed on modern technology, techniques, and treatment protocols. I used to joke with patients who told me I “looked young” that it meant my “eyes were fresh and my hands were steady – probably things you want from your dentist,” with a wink.
Statements such as that serve to reframe the situation with a more positive light on you. In that particular example; there is evidence of nerve damage and sensation loss in the wrists of dentists over time , as high as around 1 in 5, which has been clearly documented.
So let’s discuss some ways to handle this:
Assert Your Confidence –
Verbally and visually – whatever that means for you.
Personally, I like to go to work in formal attire. I wear a white dress shirt, slacks, and a tie. I wear that every single day. You might even catch me walking into the office with a sportcoat added into the mix as well. This is the type of attire that makes me feel my best and most confident. When you feel that way, your patients will pick up on that energy.
You and I have all had moments when we are walking in a store or in a restaurant and we’re seeing the employees work. And then we see another worker and we go, “that person must be the manager.” You have no idea who they are or if that’s really the manager. But something tells you “that person must be the manager.” Something about their swagger and their confidence tells you that person knows what they’re doing. The way they move, the way they talk. If you and the team were all dressed exactly the same and in the same room, would a strager be able to guess that YOU are the doctor, the leader of the office, just by the way you carry yourself?
This is the vibe you will want to establish for yourself as quickly as possible as a young doctor.
I know that many of you will be more comfortable in scrubs. I like to wear professional attire that works for me and is comfortable for me. Both scrubs and professional attire can send a professional message. But I always go with the tie. To me, scrubs feel casual — which I felt would not be helping me as a young looking doctor.
Control the Narrative.
Recall, many of the patients who are asking ‘How old are you’ or ‘how long have you been doing this’ or ‘aren’t you too young to be a dentist?’ are doing one of two things. 1) Just trying to make conversation because they don’t know you and your appearance is something they observe or 2) they are nervous. When people are nervous there is a human tendency to try to create a sense of nervousness in the other person as well. In a strange way that makes some people feel more comfortable – or like they have more power. To make you nervous, like they feel nervous. Don’t get caught up in that game. Control the narrative. You can easily do this with questions.
Ask them back: “That’s a good question….how old do you think I am?” is a great one for several reasons.
1) It puts the onus on them and kind of confronts them on their rude question.
2) It gets them to actually think about it. They might even follow up and ask you “well…how long does it take to become a dentist?” and when you answer them with 8 years (9 if you did a GPR) they will quickly realize you are not actually a child.
3) Actually make them guess. It’s up to you if you tell them if they were right or not. I usually turn it into somewhat of a guessing game and have fun with it. “You’re getting warmer, 32? Nope, now colder….” Turning the scenario into the game delegitimizes the question, relieves some stress, can get a few laughs, and can build rapport by having some fun with banter.
You can also answer with story framing: Answering with story framing solves the problem of them not knowing anything about you. This method will potentially build rapport by teaching them a little bit about who you are, while at the same time opening up dialogue for other non-age related conversation. An approach like this can be a great tool to set a nervous patient at ease.
You may say, “Old enough to have 3 kids. I’ve got 2 boys and a girl. Do you have any kids?” Boom. They know you are a parent, they know someone trusts you enough to have kids with you, and we have successfully changed the topic.
You might say, “Old enough to know when someone asks me that question, it means they are a little nervous. What brings you in today?” You’ve now completely reframed the situation; and established the context that you have in fact treated patients before and they are NOT your first one. You’ve also opened the door for the patient to tell more of their story and start to build the relationship.
You do have experience
When a patient asks a young looking doctor, “how long have you been doing this?” This question often implies that they believe you may lack the experience to do a quality job. The first thing to do is understand that you do have experience. By the time you graduate dental school you’ve done several hundred procedures. This is not your first rodeo. At the University of Michigan, if I recall, we had our first patient care experiences in our first year – doing prophies. Clinical care then progressed to more and more complex treatment along the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year. By the time you are in your first year outside of school — you’ll honestly be amid your 5th year doing dentistry.
A dialogue I may have had with a patient early on may sound like, “Well, University of Michigan is really great because they start us working on patients our 1st year. When many schools don’t start until the 3rd year. So at this point, I’ve been working on patients for 6 years. I’ve probably done this procedure several hundred times if that sets your mind at ease.”
You can also prime the patient to appreciate your experience. In my office you will find my diplomas and awards proudly displayed on the wall. You can’t miss them when you walk inside.
From my observation if you just answer the question straight out of the gate…, that only seems to add to awkwardness. When the patient asks you their question, and you deadpan stare them in the eyes and say 28. Likely, this moment will be followed by an awkward silence and just feel weird. Consider trying out the methods I’ve laid out above. The ‘straight number’ answer would be a strong way to communicate only if you really are older and just look young. “Thanks for saying that, I’m actually 40, i’ve been doing this for 15 years.” Few people will have anything negative to say after that. That’s easy. But if you really ARE young or really ARE a new grad – Feel free to share some techniques that have worked or not worked for you.
Good luck young doc!
Kaizen – Let’s all get a little bit better, every day.
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