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Letter From Dear Doctor

Issue 27 of Dear Doctor Magazine

The Dentist as Patient: A Lesson in Empathy

As in any relationship, sympathy and empathy are important components of the dentist-patient relationship. These words tend to be used interchangeably, yet their emotional meaning is actually quite different.

Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others, but empathy goes beyond it. Empathy is broadly defined as the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of another. And perhaps one can only truly empathize with another person if one has gone through a similar or the same experience. I thought about this recently when I underwent some dental care for an infected tooth.

Most if not all of us health professionals have had to be a patient at various times in our lives. It serves us well, as givers and providers of care, to know exactly what it is like to be a patient. It should make us empathetic to the needs, feelings, emotions and treatment procedures we perform on others.

While in the dental chair, I an no different than the majority of anxious patients. I need to know that the person treating me cares whether or not they cause pain. As it turned out, this root canal procedure was a great experience: The treatment relieved the pain, and the crown looks beautiful. All went well, thanks to excellent caregivers.

What distinguishes some doctors is their ability to listen, explain and communicate in words that an individual — a patient — can understand; this helps create a feeling that both parties are on the same team. In essence, creating a “treatment alliance” really goes a long way toward getting to a situation of empathy.

As always, I hope that Dear Doctor fosters an environment of understanding by making knowledge of dentistry, oral health and its connection to general health accessible, entertaining, and helpful in creating these valuable relationships with your healthcare professionals. I want Dear Doctor to continue to improve, so please fill out our new survey at


Mario A.Vilardi, DMD