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Interview with Dr Eric Block: “Dentistry is a grind”

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Dentistry is a taxing profession, and excessive work-related stress can sometimes lead to anxiety, depression and professional burn-out. (Image: Azat Valeev/Shutterstock)

Dr Eric Block is a full-time practising dentist in Acton in Massachusetts in the US. A few years ago, he became overwhelmed by the amount of stress that dentistry was generating in his daily life and decided to take action to improve his mental state. His story is narrated in his book The Stress-Free Dentist: Overcome Burnout and Start Loving Dentistry Again, which was written in the hope of helping other dentists to deal with similar mental health issues. To bring awareness about professional burn-out, Dr Block agreed to speak to Dental Tribune International and to relate some of the major changes he had to make in order to re-energise himself and to be able to enjoy the multifaceted dental office dynamic once again.

Dr Block, mental health and occupational well-being are not novel terms. However, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic has received more attention than ever lately and this has gradually helped to remove the stigma of mental illness. How important is good mental health to you personally, and how much effort do you put into feeling comfortable at work and in your daily life?
Mental health is more important than ever. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much isolation and a lack of socialisation. However, there is now increasing conversation about work-related burn-out and mental health. Dentistry is a grind, and if we don’t focus on our well-being and mental health, it can lead to burn-out or even suicide. That is why peer engagement is crucial.

The Stress-Free Dentist was born out of the necessity of sharing your story to help dental professionals and their teams to navigate mental health issues. Have your confrontation of mental health issues in your book and your better understanding of your mental health journey allowed you to take action to promote your well-being?
Yes. I had to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that there was a problem and that I needed to do something about it. I knew that the problems of stress, anxiety and burn-out that I was feeling were not going to go away on their own. So, I went to a local therapist who helped me to find out why I was so anxious.

I shared my story in the book in order to tell dentists out there that there is hope, that they should not give in to the false belief that dentistry is just a stressful profession and that nothing can be done to change that—you just have to ride it out until you retire. I am proof that that’s not true.

Dr Eric Block. (Image: Eric Block)

You believe that a dentist’s role can include the role of clinician, surgeon, CEO, entrepreneur and creator. Could you elaborate on how taking on these roles can add to stress at work?
I came out of dental school with minimal clinical skills and absolutely zero leadership, communication, human resources, marketing or accounting skills. As dental professionals, we can complete our dental training and open up a successful business without any business training. Most of us commit mistakes and learn on the fly.

We are clinicians with drills and needles who have to focus all of our attention on a patient who is an awake, moving target during surgery. We have to continue working like this, patient after patient, and then have to deal with the non-clinical aspects of the dental business as well.

Does the surgeon at the local hospital also do all of the marketing, have to evaluate overhead costs and manage human resources? I doubt that. He or she focuses on patient care, whereas dentists have so many other hats they need to wear.

How does bearing so many responsibilities affect interactions with patients?
All of these other roles we play unfortunately detract from our focus on clinical patient care, which is the most important aspect of dentistry. With a computer, when you start to add more tabs to the desktop, it can be overwhelming. Similarly, in dentistry it would be great if we just had one tab titled “clinical patient care” open, but unfortunately, there are other facets to the dental office dynamic that ultimately require attention. It can definitely be exhausting to juggle all of these tabs.

When talking about burn-out, you mentioned in your book that being an introvert can contribute to mental exhaustion at work. Being an introvert yourself, how did shying away from, or feeling nervous about, social interactions with patients affect your work and well-being?
As an introvert, I re-energise or de-stress by not talking to anyone, by taking a break from the day-to-day, hour-by-hour social interaction with patients. As dentists, we are expected to be constantly in a good mood and at our best. This has always been, and still is, exhausting for me.

My partner is an extrovert, and she seems to re-energise by participating in social interaction. It doesn’t seem to make her tired, and that’s completely fine with me. With time, I have realised that there is nothing wrong with me; it is just how I am wired.

What are some of the key changes you had to make in order to improve your mental health and to renew your enjoyment in the profession?
I learned that I had to take care of myself before I could take care of others. Previously, I was trying to be everything to everyone and said yes to everyone, which was, in fact, saying no to myself. I started to be more comfortable with myself on the inside and learned to say no to others from time to time.

As dental professionals, we can complete our dental training and open up a successful business without any business training”

In your book, you tell the story of a patient who, during her first appointment, read your irises. Could you recount the story and relate it to how burn-out has taught you the importance of patient and case selection?
My intuition told me she might not be a patient with whom I wanted to be involved. Dentistry is like a marriage, and you can be married to patients for a long time, but you can also say no. You don’t have to treat everyone.

This woman may have been a great patient, but I thought she would be a better fit in someone else’s office. You don’t have to say yes to every patient or every case. Stay in your comfort zone.

Technology is a powerful tool, transforming businesses and facilitating work. In one of your articles, you discuss how adding new treatment modalities or technology, such as 3D printing, can help relieve stress and pressure at work. Has this been the case for you personally?
Adding new treatment technology or new treatment modalities can be re-energising for a dentist and for his or her practice. Doing the same thing day in and day out can lead to boredom and burn-out. Adding something new can be encouraging and make things exciting again. Your staff and patients will sense this excitement. I felt this when I went fully digital.

In the same article, you also mention how investing in a 3D printer can help impress your patients. How could showing off new technology improve patient satisfaction and make work more fun?
Adding a new technology like 3D printing is extremely impressive. Patients are always amazed by the science behind it. It is also great for marketing as it can set a dental office apart from others. Patients will want to refer their family and friends to a tech-savvy office.

Would you like to add anything else?
I have a new book coming out, tentatively titled Stress-Free Dental Implants, and a new podcast. There’s also a website I founded called the Dental Industry Academy that I would like to promote.

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