Awaiting departure on a recent airline flight, I found myself feeling a little guilty. My wife and I were taking a few days for R & R, but the dental journals I had brought along were chipping away at my exuberance. Still thinking in terms of “back at the office”, I started spinning my wheels about the current month, how it was going to have fewer available production hours; emergencies would need to be rerouted; and our schedule would become backed up yet a little further. Instead of relishing the beginning of the trip, I continued down the road (the rut?) I was in, and let myself suffer from the classic guilt complex about recognizing that many equally deserving people cannot “arrange” to get away. (There is a reason they describe it with the word “complex”.) Of course, my internal dialogue is ever replete with thoughts like “You’ve earned it … We owe it to ourselves … “ But this line of thinking at times feels like clever rationalization the privileged use to justify their good fortune.
After take-off, the flight attendant ran through the standard list of emergency procedures and instructions. One detail, however, resonated with my mood regarding this short vacation: “If there is a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment for your use.” We were instructed to activate and position our own masks prior to assisting someone else. I couldn’t help but see a parallel. To provide the optimal care our patients deserve, we need to operate as close to 100% as possible. We owe our best to everyone in our circle of influence. We do not have the luxury of just “phoning it in” or sliding through a day. Our patients depend upon it, our staff expects it, and our professional reputation is built upon it.
After years of experience, a practitioner can still achieve good results at 70% of his or her optimal effort and attention. We can do passing work on inadequate sleep and after ridiculous weekly schedules. Competent care can be provided by dentists recovering from illness, injuries, and emotional turmoil. What cannot occur is using these things as an excuse for substandard care. We must carefully monitor our level of competency and ability to attend to detail. Our position requires the mental stamina to supervise our staff and coax our patients through difficult procedures, often with a certain amount of handholding.
To accomplish that task, we must dedicate enough time and energy to keep ourselves near peak efficiency. That can take many forms, including exercise, a study club, a hobby, family time, just a little time away, or all of the above. We need to stay attuned to ourselves, including the eventual decline of our youthful stamina.
Business owners can fall into the “Type A” personality’s singlemindedness that we are indispensable. We think no one can replace us, or we fear our patients will become aware that others can indeed provide their care. We fear that unsupervised staff will be unproductive or that patient care will be negatively affected.
Religion has long advocated retreats for people to rediscover their direction, purpose, and faith. Our careers deserve no less. In the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Steven Covey promotes “sharpening the saw”, or spending time in self-improvement and maintenance to retain our edge. Down time provides rest, restores energy, and creates perspective often lost in the chaos of everyday life. Time away from the office can keep us in touch with our inner selves, that being, among other things, our touchstone for compassion and our moral compass. It can help us avoid burnout and remember why we chose dentistry in the first place.
This struggle completed, I finally left my flight feeling much better about my time allocation and the family time I had scheduled. Those heavy dental journals were securely packed in my carry-on, though, just in case my trip back was delayed. With apologies to the Moody Blues, it’s simply “a question of balance”
*Dr. Kurkowski is Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association Committee on Constitution, Bylaws, and Ethics. He is a general dentist in private practice in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org