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Confronting age discrimination within dentistry is often a matter of being at ease with the new generations coming through, as well as all the latest procedures and technology. By John Burfitt
A number of legal cases involving age discrimination in dentistry in the United States in recent years have shed light on the way mature workers can be treated in the modern dental workplace.
The owner of a practice in Pennsylvania fired eight out of nine dental hygienists over the age of 40, replacing them with 13 new hygienists all under 40.
At a Minnesota practice, a 72-year-old dentist was given a glowing performance review one day, only to be fired days later because the owner stated she was, “too old to learn new things”, and was replaced by a dentist 30 years younger.
In a New Haven case, a dental hygienist aged 73 was repeatedly bullied about her age by the manager, until she was finally dismissed.
The cases went to court on age discrimination grounds, and most judgements were found in favour of the dismissed workers.
It appears, however, that ageism has not emerged as a major issue among the local ranks of almost 20,000 dental registered practitioners in Australia. As ADA NSW’s advisory services manager Dr Sarah Raphael states, “I think there’s far less ageism in dentistry than there is in many other professions and there is a respect for the mature people of dentistry.”
There is the risk, however, that older practitioners can, as in any profession, allow themselves to get out of touch and become resistant to change. Comments like, ‘We’ve always done things this way and are not altering that now’ are sure-fire signs that a change of attitude might be due as that approach will not cut it with the new generations coming through.
That is an area Bethan Flood, human resources general manager of Prime Practice, admits she has dealt with in situations she describes as ‘age conflict’.
“I have seen cases when a new, younger dentist takes over the practice and begins to introduce new systems, and there has been push back from some older support staff who are not prepared to change the way they have worked for years,” Flood says.
“This is a guaranteed way to render yourself as out of date, no matter how good your core skills may be. To remain relevant, you need to be open to new ways of doing things, new procedures and particularly new technology. Having regular conversations about professional updates, learning from fellow team members, and committing to coaching can be a good way to stay ahead.”
In this era of fast-evolving technology, one complaint often heard from younger staff members is that mature people do not have the same level of technological skills and acumen as younger generations do.
Which is, of course, valid as younger dentists have grown up with technology that mature practitioners have had to learn and adapt to. One way to bridge this age gap is for mature dentists to make a commitment to training in new technologies as part of their Dental Board registration continuing professional development obligations.
“There’s a whole spectrum of advances to keep up to date with, so maybe you look into 3D printing restorative options, and the other technology that has really taken off is imaging,” Dr Raphael says.
“It’s also really important to stay ahead of regulatory guidelines and policies, especially in terms of infection control. Committing to accreditation will take any dentist a long way towards ensuring everything is up to date.”
One of the best ways to counter any aspect of ageism in a practice is through mentoring, where it can be the mentor who learns as much as the mentee in a constant exchange of strategies and concepts. Consultant Ameena Basile of Dental Management Expertise believes a formal mentoring program should be in play in every dental practice that has the capacity to accommodate one.
“Mentoring is one of the best ways to get different age demographics within a team working together, rather than against each other,” she says.
“Mentoring can then become a trading program where the mature dentist coaches the younger dentists through the processes that were probably never touched upon in dental school as well as sharing what they have learnt through experience. In return, the younger dentist gets to share new ideas and concepts as well.
“In such a process, both dentists learn something new and possibly both become better dentists as a result.”
This sharing of ideas should ideally extend to the range of materials available online, adds Bethan Flood.
“What I’ve seen is younger dentists know so much about online resources, and it’s often an area older dentists are not as aware of, but all of it has the potential to make their job much easier,” she says. “It’s a matter of putting aside the mindset of being the more knowledgeable older person and just adopting a learning approach to the many online resources that are available.”
A mature dentist investing in new learnings in order to remain relevant through the rest of their career is just as important in appealing to the next generation of patients.
“There’s a generational change in what people want in their healthcare,” Dr Raphael says. “So, when the children and even grandchildren of existing patients start coming through, the dentist needs to think about responding to them in a way that suits those groups and what they are looking for.
“Consider how much Google researching patients are doing these days on treatments. The more a dentist knows about those latest trends will help them stay relevant and allow them to guide their patients towards good treatment choices.”