This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Natura magazine. We have reproduced it for the information of those of you who missed it when it was published.
Dr Edwin Tan jokingly blames Sir Laurence Olivier for the bad rep his profession has had.
In the 1976 film Marathon Man, the English actor plays an evil dentist who finds a novel use for all his drills, scalers and other sharp instruments: torture. “The film has managed to cling onto the vestiges of most people’s minds,” laughs Dr Tan.
Fortunately for us, dentists aren’t psychopaths… or so Dr Tan claims.
The dental specialist with Specialist Dental Group® and lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) admits the two biggest myths about his job are that dentistry is painful and its practitioners are sadists.
YOU’RE A WHAT?
Most people also think that looking after one’s chompers involves one job description, that of a dentist. But, just as there are numerous disciples in medicine, there are many disciplines within dentistry. Dr Tan’s is prosthodontics.
A prosthodontist is a “restorative dentist,” explains Dr Tan. This means he is akin to an architect of a dental treatment plan: a specialist who assesses a patient’s need from a holistic point of view and then prescribes a customised therapy plan. “It’s not just about a tooth or two but how the treatment impacts the patient’s entire oral health, his appearance, and how he eats and speaks on a day-to-day basis,” continues the dentist.
Typically, he uses dentures, crowns, bridges and dental implants to restore a patient’s dental health, but he often does cosmetic work as well. However, Dr Tan clarifies that a “patient’s cosmetic desires should not only enhance the patient’s appearance, but also be structurally and functionally sound.”
One of the more popular procedures Dr Tan performs is dental implant treatment to replace missing teeth. According to him, patients are starting to opt for long-term solutions instead of the usual removable dentures.
“An example of this involves full jaw implant restorations, or the more novel All-on-4™ Dental Implant procedure, where four implants are strategically placed in the jawbone to replace an entire arch of teeth without the need to go through the procedure of bone grafting,” he describes.
This sounds absolutely terrifying, but Dr Tan is quick to allay any fear. He points out that advances in technology and anaesthetics have taken dentistry out of what he terms the “dark ages.” And he has formed a few strategies for dealing with fearful patients: engage them with empathy, use a show-and-tell approach, and start with simple procedures such as polishing.
“I find that moving at a pace the patient is comfortable with and allowing the patient to feel in control help tremendously in introducing various aspects of dentistry without being overwhelming for the patient,” he remarks. Even kids, he adds, are handled this way. Sir Laurence certainly wouldn’t have done the same.
A HUMBLING EXPERIENCE
Dr Tan’s journey to prosthodontics began more than two decades ago.
After a four-year course in basic dentistry from the NUS, he went on to complete a three-year advanced graduate programme in Chicago’s Northwestern University to specialise in prosthodontics. Yet, despite his qualifications, Dr Tan confesses he’s an “accidental dentist.”
“I recall stumbling into the profession when I was offered Dentistry, in spite of choosing Medicine as my first choice,” he reveals. “I had no childhood ambitions of being a dentist. In those days, dentistry was often regarded as the school for medical school rejects, and most of us who were offered the course gamely went ahead as we had no idea what was involved except for the fact that it was medically related.”
But that changed the moment Dr Tan started interacting with patients. Only then did he realise he had the ability to make a real impact on the lives of his patients. If has also stoked in him an interest about people in general, as he doesn’t treat the teeth alone but the person as a whole. “Seeing the improvement in terms of the quality of life and the restoration of a patient’s confidence to face the world is priceless,” Dr Tan says.
“I’m always blown away when patients show their gratitude for something I regard as just part of my job. It is extremely humbling.”
Dr Tan has also noticed that people now, compared to when he was starting out, have a better impression of dentistry as a career. In fact, the dentist claims that “thousands of applicants vie for the 50 places available in the yearly intake to the dental faculty at the NUS.”
Not that Dr Tan has been elevated to the status of a dental deity. In fact, he admits his day-to-day life is similar to most Singaporean parents: it begins not in the office but on the roads, negotiating the early morning traffic to send his kids to school. “Most people who know me also know I regularly complain about the morning journeys, but I must admit it gives me a chance to spend some quality time with my kids. And as masochistic as it sounds, I wouldn’t change any part of it,” he smiles.
Wait – what was it about sadistic dentists again?
As part of his job as the ‘architect’ of a dental plan, Dr Tan frequently works with dentist from other specialties. Here are a few of them:
An endodontist specialises in the dental pulp: the tissue and cells in the centre of a tooth. These are the experts who are usually in charge of root canal therapy.
In addition to the gums, periodontists study the alveolar bone (it contains the tooth sockets), and the cementum (a substance that covers the root of the tooth).
If you’ve ever had braces, chances are that they were installed by an orthodontist, a dentist who specialises in irregular bites.
ORAL AND MAXILLOFACIAL SURGERY
These dentists specialise in surgery to treat diseases, injuries and defects in the jaws, mouth, face, head and neck.
As its name suggests, forensic dentists assist the police in analysing dental remains. They are able to identify the age and race of unidentified victims, and even deduce their occupation and socio-economic status.
Dr. Edwin Tan is a Dental Specialist in Prosthodontics with Specialist Dental Group®. He is also a Senior Adjunct Lecturer with the Department of Restorative Dentistry at the National University of Singapore. Dr Tan has a special interest in dental implants, crowns and aesthetic dentistry.