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Being an authentic dentist

3rd March 2020

For JCU Dentistry graduate and Innisfail local Dr Gur-Amrit Kaur, living and working in a regional community provides the ideal environment in which to discover your true self, both personally and professionally.

“When you stay in a smaller rural or regional town, you quickly get to know everyone. There is a sense of security in that, and also a sense of community and belonging. It gives you the safety to be your authentic self,” said Dr Kaur.

“All of us in Innisfail are full-on characters and that’s completely accepted!”

The Queensland Health senior dentist, who works across the Innisfail and Tully region, believes you need to share your personality to be an effective dentist.

“It’s very easy to step into the realm of thinking 'I’m a dentist and this is a patient and I’m working on them. But no, we’re actually working with them, going through a journey together. Building that connection is so important. We all have an experience to share, and when you share that, you're able to build a connection,” said Dr Kaur.

Building trust with patients in a dental clinic setting can be especially challenging, particularly for those who feel ashamed about the state of their teeth, or for those who fear dentists.

“We have people who come here and they mentally starfish at the door. I’ve had people break down crying once they sit in the chair. For these patients, coming to a dental clinic can be quite traumatic. It’s a much bigger picture than just teeth.”

“We had a patient who had a history of domestic violence and drugs and her teeth were in a very poor condition. When it came time to insert some dentures, she had a look in the mirror and started crying. It was so transformational for her and that’s the part that I love about being a dentist.”

Another unexpected factor that can cause patients to fear a trip to the dentist is the terminology used to describe procedures.

“The language around dentistry is not very comforting. Dentists aren’t seen as healers. Instead, they are regarded as someone who drills, fills and pulls.”

Moreover, for some patients even just sitting in the dentist’s chair can make them feel particularly vulnerable and anxious.

“The dental industry can be quite psychological. The patient is lying in a chair, almost like a psychologist’s chair, they are putting their complete trust in you. To be in that vulnerable state, with someone that close, inches from your face, that’s hard. It’s actually a courageous thing for a patient to do.”

Dr Kaur’s advice is for dentists to recognise how patients may be feeling, and adjust their approach to treatment accordingly.

“That vulnerable state is what dentists must understand. We must ensure that we carry those people through that with dignity and respect, that we take them on their healing journey. If you fully embrace that, see it from the patient’s point of view, then you get to know how to help in the best way possible.”

Dr Kaur credits the development of her philosophical and holistic approach to dentistry in part to the training she received at JCU. As part of the first cohort of JCU dental students ten years ago, she was also exposed to the ‘pioneering’ spirit of the times.

“We all wanted the same goal, to build a rural and regional dentistry workforce together. There was a lot of criticism back then for doing things differently, but JCU has been successful in flipping that completely on its head.”

“As the dentistry school developed and grew, so did we. It made us resourceful and resilient.”

Beginning her studies as a school leaver, Dr Kaur admits her decision to study dentistry was strongly influenced by her extended family. However, she has never looked back.

“I would definitely recommend dentistry as a rewarding career because of the lives you touch, the people you see, and the journeys you get to experience. It’s a unique space.”

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