What price perfection? The personal and professional costs of being too hard on yourself

Originally published in March 2013

Dentistry tends to attract people with particular personality traits. Succeeding in dental school and in practice requires discipline, determination, intelligence, drive and a certain amount of competitiveness. Like others in demanding professions, dentists are usually high achievers with high standards for others, but most especially for themselves. Many were drawn to dentistry over other health professions because of their desire for independence and control over their careers and financial futures. Theirs is a healing profession, and most dentists care deeply about their patients’ welfare and strive to provide the best care possible, so they are devastated when their best efforts aren’t enough.

But the flipside of these attributes can lead dentists into trouble. Some overestimate their abilities or are reluctant to admit any limits on their skills or training to their patients. They may be reticent, even ashamed to ask colleagues for advice or assistance. Some have difficulty acknowledging or dealing with patient dissatisfaction or less than ideal treatment outcomes. They may go into denial or refuse to accept defeat, often making matters worse.

All of these behaviours and attitudes increase the likelihood of patient complaints and legal actions. The following are a few tips for avoiding such pitfalls.


Many PLP files arise from situations in which the member strayed into areas beyond his or her level of experience and competency. The fact that a patient asks you to perform the service for financial or other reasons will not be a defence to a complaint or a claim if you did not have the appropriate training.


Sometimes the best response when a complication occurs is to refer the patient to a colleague for assessment or remedial treatment. Mistakes are more likely to occur when you are personally invested in fixing your own problem.


Forge relationships with other dentists; find and/or be a mentor; join or create study clubs; become a member of a professional association. Connecting with other people facing similar challenges and situations will help you work through them.


Don’t be embarrassed to admit you don’t know something. Reach out for help and advice. You’re not perfect, and acting as if you were is a sure-fire way to ensure you will be sued if things don’t turn out as planned. And by the way, your colleagues aren’t perfect either.


Things go wrong. Admit it, deal with it and move on. Most important is that you tell the patient right away. Not only is it your legal, ethical and professional obligation to disclose an adverse event to your patient in a timely fashion, but failure to do so significantly increases your risk of a lawsuit and the potential for an award of punitive damages against you, for which PLP does not provide indemnification.


Studies have demonstrated that empathy from the health practitioner can positively affect a patient’s reaction to a complication. And in Ontario, an apology cannot be used as evidence of liability in a civil proceeding, so there is nothing to lose in making a heartfelt expression of sympathy for a patient’s suffering.