You always thought that you were gifted. Not because you were the best athlete in your class or the best-looking student in your dorm, or because you were named the valedictorian at high school graduation. In fact, you were none of these, and in some cases, far from it. There were plenty of instances when you wished you could come up with that game-winning play, emit the charisma of a screen star when you walked into a party, or achieve the highest score on an examination. Rather, you felt gifted because you always knew that you wanted to be an orthodontist. Unlike so many of your classmates, your path was clearly defined: you needed to work as hard as you could and demonstrate a sincere drive to emulate the doctor who changed your smile into what it is today. It was your association with your own orthodontist that inspired you to follow in his footsteps.
You’ve often thought about the attributes of your old orthodontist that you’d like to emulate. You recall that he displayed characteristics that motivated you, engaged you, and encouraged you, not only to succeed in your own orthodontic therapy, but in your career success.
It has been said that the only thing constant is change, and orthodontics is no exception. The evolution of technology’s application to care has revolutionized the business side of treatment delivery in multiple dimensions. But despite the vast advances of technology and management systems, our focus, our salient interest, our universe, is the patient. This priority has been labeled the “centrality of the patient.” Technology, from either a clinical or a business management perspective, can never overshadow the patient as the reason for our specialty.
Our patients are extremely perceptive about the care we offer them. They might not understand the value of canine guidance or appreciate precisely coordinated marginal ridge height, but 1 virtue they can readily perceive is our unhurried empathy. Empathy in medicine has been identified as a strong factor in patient compliance and establishment of trust. Empathy encompasses active listening, genuine interest in the patient’s welfare, and cultural respect. Empathy is considered so integral to a physician’s competence that certification by the American Board of Internal Medicine and accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education now include empathy assessment in their certification examinations and accreditation criteria. A practitioner’s sincere attempt to understand a patient’s lifestyle or predicament, or an authentic interest in the patient as an individual, have been shown to improve satisfaction and fulfillment for the practitioner. And the incidence of professional liability litigation is decreased when the doctor demonstrates empathy in the doctor-patient relationship.
One study that demonstrated the value of doctor empathy in the form of communication involved a review of 29 tape-recorded internist-patient interactions. When the physician did not advise the patient of the treatment duration or omitted adequate information about a prescription, only one third of the patients kept their follow-up appointments. Patients who thought that their physicians made a genuine effort to communicate with them recalled the most about their condition.
Is there a parallel in orthodontic therapy? Our specialty is so dependent on cooperation that the results might be even more dramatic. One reason that many of us have enjoyed a career in orthodontics is the lasting associations between ourselves and our patients and their families. Perhaps the greatest asset of many of our predecessors was their ability to spend the time to convey genuine interest—and obvious empathy—toward their patients. That skill alone transcended the technologic advances of slick bracket designs, flashy software, and glitzy office designs to deliver an exemplary result.
It’s empathy, and it’s only human.