Featured Image - A panoramic view of Van Gogh painting projection

A few weeks ago, I attended Van Gogh Alive, a super-sized exhibit designed to put people “inside” the Dutch painter's most famous works of art. After nearly a year indoors and away from gatherings amid the ongoing pandemic, I was looking forward to the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary.

From start to finish, this multisensory experience was a vibrant symphony of light, color, sound, fragrance, and wonder. Enormous projections of masterpieces like “The Starry Night” and “Bedroom in Arles” surrounded attendees. I found fascinating angles, colors or textures around every corner that gave me a different perspective on Van Gogh's artwork.

Toward the end of the exhibit, I ran into a friend who was speaking to a woman I'd never met. My friend gestured for me to come over and introduced me to Mariana, who said hello and asked with a fist bump greeting, “So what do you do for a living?”

Admittedly, I hesitated. Over the years, I've become leery of telling new acquaintances that I'm a dentist. I love what I do, but I've grown accustomed to (and tired of) the typical response, which is usually some variation of, “Oh I hate going to the dentist!”

In fact, just a few days prior, I was invited to be a guest for a popular Spanish-language podcast. As the host was introducing me, she said enthusiastically, “Before I introduce our very special guest today, I'll give the audience a guess at what he does for a living...” and cut to the sound of a high-speed handpiece.

The host grimaced and remarked, “Tell me – how have we put a man on the moon, but dentists haven't invented a quieter way to work on our teeth?”

When Mariana asked me an innocent question about my line of work, I'm not sure what came over me next. Maybe it was the music, the atmosphere, my glass of wine (or a mix of all three) but I replied, “Well, I actually work in an anthropology lab of sorts.”

Mariana looked puzzled and asked what I meant. I continued:

“I work with an outstanding team of professionals, all from different backgrounds and with unique mindsets. Together we interact with 20 to 25 different people every day – people who come from various backgrounds and walks of life – who all come to us seeking help. And we provide that help very consistently.”

Eventually I disclosed that my so-called “anthropology lab” wasn't a traditional laboratory, but a dental practice.

Interestingly, rather than recoiling in discomfort at the idea of visiting the dentist, Mariana responded by saying, “Oh, I'll have to come by and see it for myself!” Not quite the response I'd grown accustomed to hearing.

So, why am I telling this story?

I believe what stands in the way of dentists making a greater impact in the lives of patients is the bigger story we tell about our profession. If we want our patients and team members to see what's possible through great dentistry, then we need to focus on the humanity in our work.

The Van Gogh Alive experience helped me see art in an entirely new way. Is it possible for our practices to do the same for dentistry?

Could creating a multisensory experience within our offices help patients see their oral health and treatment options in new ways?

The answer is yes, but only if we change the narrative about our profession – and that starts with us. We are much more than the sound of high-speed handpiece and a yearly appointment our patients dread. We have the capacity to transform people and vastly improve quality of life – and we should be excited to tell our communities about the dental profession.

Ricardo Mitrani, D.D.S., M.S.D., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.


Commenter's Profile Image Benjamin T.
July 17th, 2021
This is an amazing, well written article. I too dread telling people what I do for a living because of the response. I honestly believe that hearing “I hate the dentist” consistently also contributes to burn out. I would love to see a workshop or online video pathway developed around this idea. Such an amazing alternative description. I’m going to work on a version of my own. Thanks Ricardo!