THE INTERVIEW

5 questions you always wanted to ask Dr. Chen, but never had the chance to ask. (Because he's working in your mouth and you can't talk.)  

 

QUESTION #1: Why did you become a dentist?

I immigrated to America from Taiwan in 1985 when I was in 5th grade. My father was a graduate school student at UIC and my mother worked in the restaurant industry. I, unfortunately, had some fairly complex dental problems early on. But we didn’t have money to go see the dentist. This experience taught me to respect people’s difficulty in affording the treatment they need; it reminds me to respect people’s money when I collect my fees.

But somehow we managed. Slowly, my family was able to overcome some financial barriers. I was congenitally missing 4 teeth. At first I saw this dentist who gave me braces. But it was done poorly and caused more complexity. Later on I saw a more competent dentist who, partnering with specialists, coordinated a long-term, comprehensive treatment plan. I has braces a second time, and eventually had 4 implants placed. 2 at a time, due to cost concerns. The whole process took many years. I was already in college when the treatment was still continuing.

Like the typical struggling immigrant family of that time, the 1st generations parents commonly dreamed their children will become doctors or engineers. I had a hard time with calculus in high school, so biology was a better path for me. Since I was going through so much dental drama during these years, having dental appointment every month, it was natural for me to consider going to dental school. Fascinated by dentistry’s ability to help me, the idea that one day I can likewise help others was appealing to me. The last 2 of my 4 implants was done when I was a dental student. Since that time I haven’t had another dental problem. All those years in treatment and money spent, it was worth it.

Before going into dentistry, I thought about becoming a musician. I played the flute. In high school I was a member of The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. I became fascinated with how woodwind instruments are made by hand. I took my instrument apart, fixed and restored it. I visited instrument makers at their shop and watched them work. I was amazed at the things these master craftsmen can fix. I learned to love working with my hands. I saw that the result is more than the sum of the small hand actions — it’s magic. I loved the idea of restoration — that I can take an old, broken instrument which sounded terrible and restore it to its designed glory, to make it sound beautiful again. In a way, my being a dentist, restoring broken teeth, gives me the same joy.

At The Radiant Smile, I used the same laboratory technician for 10+ years. We talk on a weekly basis about the quality of the crowns he makes for me. Our relationship is strictly professional. He has a successful dental lab business; all his clients are dentists. Everyday he sees what few people sees — the work of many dentists, side by side to be compared. Over the years he knows who is good. When his daughter and his wife needed dental work. They came to see me. Even though I did not receive a plaque to hang on the wall, I consider this one of the highest honors. It comforted me to be affirmed that I am good at what I do. A couple of years ago, a dentist who had a office a mile away from mine (who shall remain nameless), came to see me after hours for complex treatment. It confirmed in me a sense of peace that I chose a good path; I was meant to be a dentist, it is my art.

QUESTION #2: What do you like most about your job?

Being a dentist is the perfect job for me. If I can go back in time to college and have a second chance at choosing my career path, I would become a dentist again. I have a plain spoken personality. I don’t enjoy cocktail parties; I’m no good at gratuitous niceness. So I’m no good at the politics of large organizations, of cooperate America. I like being the captain of my small boat. I like having my own dental practice to concentrate on my craft. And of course I appreciate the benefit of being able to live in a safe neighborhood, of being able to send my children to good schools. Photography is my hobby, so I appreciate being able to own a nice camera that allows me to be really creative.

Along with this privilege, and the influence I have as a boss, comes a duty to uplift people. Taking this responsibility seriously is what I like the most about my job — that I can be a mentor to those who work alongside me. I love taking in people with no experience, and helping them discover that they are capable of more than they think, that they should set their gaze on a higher goal. To inspire, and to give opportunity, that is what I like most about my job.

I practiced dentistry at The Radiant Smile since 2003. During this time, 2 of my chair side assistants have gone to school and became licensed dental hygienists. And 5 of my assistants chose to go to dental school and are now working as license dentists! In fact, one of them, Dr. Xheni Basko, recently returned to The Radiant Smile and now works as as my colleague! The pipeline doesn’t stop there — one of my current assistants is now going to school and preparing for the dental school entrance exam. This makes me happy. It is what I like most about my job.

QUESTION #3: What do you dislike most about your job?

That many patients think it is easy. Firstly, dentistry is hard work physically. Most dentists I know suffer serious chronic neck and lower back pain. The work demands long period of mental concentration and sharp eye focus. Eye stain is a common problem. Holding static postures, often for an hour or more, in unnatural positions (in order to see the working area) is the biggest challenge. Dentists have to sacrifice their bodies by repeatedly and unavoidably holding these harmful postures in order to work.

Secondly, people don’t realize that the procedures, while it may look easy, require many years of practice to perfect. A dentist is in a constant state of practice. I remember recently a patient came to see me with a terrible toothache. He was in tears because of the pain. The tooth was too far decayed and had to be removed. I took an x-ray, numbed him up and took out the tooth. It took 20 minutes. It didn’t hurt him at all. I thought he would be happy because the procedure went so well. To my surprise, he was complaining to the front desk because we billed $180 for the treatment. “It was so easy, so fast,” he said, “you charge to much.”

I wonder if he would have felt he got more value for his money if he went to the Emergency Room and waited 5 hours — then it won’t be “so fast.” Or if he went to a bad dentist who struggled with the procedure for two hours, then perhaps he wouldn’t complain that it was “so easy.” My point is, what looks easy, took a lifetime of practice to accomplish. When you hear a mature pianist play one of Mozart’s sonatas for example, and it sounds so effortless, one is tempted to say, “that sounds easy, I bet I can do that too.” The fact is, that 5 minutes of effortless playing, took countless hours of practice, years of sweat and tears to perfect. It’s the result of a lifetime of dedication to the craft.

QUESTION #4: Why do so many people hate the dentist?

To have good dental experiences, we have to see it as a relationship. Dentistry is not an impersonal online service, not a product to to market and sell. You are not buying a x-ray and a filling. It is a relationship, based on trust. And it must be a healthy, on-going relationship to be beneficial. Unlike online shopping, you can’t jump from dentist to dentist hoping for a better deal next time. When there is no continuity of care and no consistent philosophy of care, the outcome is commonly bad. This is a statistical fact. And those people go on saying “ I hate dentists.” As in all relationships, no dentist is perfect (and no patient is perfect). We have to find one we trust and work together. When all is said and done, it is about a real life person physically doing work in your mouth. It is a deeply personal, I would say, sacred, place to work. A dentist must acknowledge this privilege. I love that the dental professional is fundamentally relational.

I don’t believe in marketing blitz, social media buzz, or promotional campaigns. For the dental profession, the tried and true path to career satisfaction is the reliable, consistent delivery of quality work. My approach is to grow my practice slow and steady. Don’t sell. Don’t over promise. Be realistic, authentic; be practical. In the real world, problems do occur. Acknowledge it, fix it. Treat others the way I want to be treated. Care about your work, even though people won’t notice it; Take pride in your work, though others may not acknowledge it. One cannot be a happy dentist unless one can take satisfaction in doing good work, in and of itself, for it’s own sake. Patients often just want to have the confidence that you’ll be there when problems arise. I have practiced in the same location since 2003 with this philosophy.
 Trust is a sacred thing

Trust is a sacred thing

QUESTION #5: How do you feel about the future of dentistry?

It’s bright. I believe it’s the best profession in the world. Of course I am a bit biased. I heartily encourage young people to pursuit this career. More than ever, dentist are in the position to improve people’s quality of life in immediate and meaningful ways. With every smile, every meal eaten, our work directly make people’s life better, every day of their lives. Even if it’s not often acknowledged or appreciated, we still take satisfaction in this fact, because I know from experience that it’s true. It’s like a piano technician, they know their tuning and voicing work at the keyboard make quality concert performances possible. It is important work.

Recent technological advances — implants, 3D scanning and CAD-CAM milling, to name a few things — have dramatically elevated the standard of dental care. It is important to adapt the new techniques, but also to be prudent and rely on a history of proven clinical success. Too much PR focus on the latest gimmicks from manufactures to promote the newest fad is unhelpful. I find an overly polished sales team distasteful. Ultimately, it’s dependable relationships with patients and a caring heart that lead to long term career satisfaction.