A Day in the Life of a Dentist
A Typical Day
A dentist usually sees over twenty patients each day while managing a business and providing clinical care to patients.
In a typical office, the dentist usually arrives about 30 minutes before seeing patients. Usually, a dentist has a staff meeting before beginning the day, which is also commonly known as a huddle in the dental community.
The huddle is an important part of the day. Typically, every patient on the schedule for the day is reviewed and several things are discussed. First, the patient's history with the practice and their dental and medical history are reviewed so that everyone is on the same page when the patient arrives. Second, the patient's treatment for that day is discussed so that the team knows exactly why the patient is coming to the office as well as the costs and what is needed for the day. Finally, the patient's other treatment needs are planned. For example, does the patient need to have another appointment for more treatment or is all treatment completed and the patient need only return for routine cleanings?
After the huddle, the team starts to get patients and leads them to a treatment room. Typically a dental office has 3-4 patients to be seen at a time. The dentist will usually have two patients each being seen by a dental hygienist to have teeth cleaned and two additional patients each in a room with a dental assistant for dental treatment with the dentist.
Once patients are seated in treatment rooms the dentist enters the room to start treatment on a patient. The dentist confirms what the patient is having done and starts small talk to try to relax the patient. The assistant has already prepared all the instruments and placed a topical anesthetic gel where the patient will get the injection of anesthetic from the dentist (the shot).
A dentist has to choose the type of anesthetic (numbing agent) needed for each patient throughout the day. There are many different types of anesthetic, such as lidocaine, mepivacaine, bupivacaine, and articaine. Some anesthetics like bupivacaine last longer on some teeth, and the numbness will last longer. Some anesthetics don't contain certain substances that may react with other medications the patients are taking. The standard and most widely used anesthetic in dentistry is lidocaine. Many patients believe they are getting novocaine which is not really used in dentistry and has not been used for many years.
The injection is very stressful to most patients and must be given with care. Sometimes patients are given laughing gas (nitrous oxide) to help them relax, but most patients deal very well with the discomfort from the shot. Most of the time, patients don't even feel the needle go in but only feel the burn from the anesthetic entering the tissue and mistake it for the shot. It takes a while to get most shots because the slower the dentist gives them they are usually less painful for the patient.
After giving the anesthetic to a patient, the dentist will go to the next room and repeat this. By this time, the anesthetic in the first patient has worked the dentist will go provide treatment. It's not uncommon to start the day with a procedure called a crown (several people refer to this as a cap). The old fillings and tooth decay are removed from a tooth and it is built back up. The dentist drills some more of the tooth away so that a cap can be placed on the tooth to protect it from being so fragile. In most offices, a mold of the tooth must be prepared for a dental lab to make the crown out of gold and/or porcelain (some office can make a crown out of porcelain in just a few hours instead of using a dental lab). Finally, a temporary crown made out a plastic resin is placed on the tooth until the real crown comes back from the lab. Most of this is done by an assistant.
Another common procedure for the day is to restore teeth with fillings. Often these can be completed rather quickly and it is not uncommon for the dentist to drill away the rotten section of a tooth and the assistant to put the filling in place. During this time when the assistants are working in both rooms, the dentist will usually check the cleanings done by the dental hygienists and give an examination to the patients that just had their teeth cleaned.
The next patient may need a tooth removed (pulled) because it cannot be saved from being too rotten. The dentist numbs the patient and removes the tooth by moving it back and forth until it loosens up or by performing oral surgery by cutting the gums, removing bone around the tooth, and slowly taking it out by cutting the tooth and removing it piece by piece. Dentists are trained in suturing (placing stitches) and will usually do so when the gums must be cut away from the teeth.
Later in the day, a root canal may be performed. General dentists do most root canals but the more difficult procedures are referred to a specialist. When a tooth is painful but not bad enough to be removed the dentist will do a root canal to save it. The pulp (nerve and blood vessels) of the tooth is removed and the space disinfected. The tooth will then be filled up with a rubbery material upon which a filling or a crown can be fabricated to protect the tooth long term.
It is not uncommon for a general dentist to do 1-2 crowns, 10-20 fillings, extract (pull) a few teeth, perhaps do a root canal, and check and examine about 15 patients that had their teeth cleaned with the hygienists.
Dentists often need to meet with supply representatives, talk on the phone with lab technicians, perform accounting and bookkeeping tasks, and many other activities throughout the day in addition to seeing patients. A dental practice is a small business that must keep running to fulfill its goal of treating patients.
At the end of the day, the dentist writes and reviews all notes in the patient's charts and then goes home. Most dentists work 4 days a week and make approximately $160,000 per year.