The subjectivity of dentistry

For dental students, science has never been subjective. We sit through semesters of organic chemistry and anatomy in college, spending long nights trying to understand the path to the right answer (because there’s always a right answer) to the complex problems our professors throw at us. We are well-tuned machines of memorization and comprehension.

Dental school is not much different, except the problems become more complex. Suddenly, everything you are learning has an impact on the patients you will someday treat. We learn the signs and symptoms, the pathology, the etiology that leads to the diagnosis. When it comes to a multiple-choice test, there is always a right answer. During my first year of dental school, I only time I heard a teacher express a smidgen of uncertainty was during the explanation of emissary veins in the skull. “They may or may not be there,” he shrugged. “Learn them anyway.”

As an English major, the lack of subjectivity was my hardest adjustment into dental school. It’s not merely a different subject base, but a completely different style of learning. Swapping Bronte for an anatomy textbook was no challenge, but there is an enormous difference between writing an essay and taking a multiple-choice exam.

When I used to write about Shakespeare, I would sit for hours with a play, mulling over its subtleties, considering what the author wanted us to feel, think and hope. I would read other authors’ criticisms and consider their own opinions in conjunction with my own before constructing the best argument I could make. The most challenging element of writing, especially about others’ writing, is acknowledging its complexity. In order to be a good writer, one must acknowledge that there is no right answer.

As I assist in the dental clinic and watch the D3s and D4s work, I’ve learned something: In the world of health care, there is also no right answer. Students will get an opinion from one dentist, which disagrees with that of another faculty member, yet the group leader will choose an entirely different treatment plan. There is no textbook answer for the complexities of patient care in the world of oral health and patient opinion. There is only the best educated, most informed guess. If that’s not the thesis statement to the essay of our lives, I don’t know what is.

It is difficult to be a humanities student in the lecture hall of dental school, but to my fellow writers, painters and musicians out there: Work hard and be patient. Our right-sided brains can rest assured because we are going to be acknowledging the subjective complexities of patient care for the rest of our lives. And our multiple-choice loving friends are going to have to be content to learn that sometimes, there is no right answer.

~Juliette Mann, Pennsylvania ’21

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About Juliette Mann

Juliette Mann is a candidate for D.M.D at the University of Pennsylvania, SDM. She is the Penn ASDA Editor in Chief and a contributing editor for District 3. Outside of ASDA, she enjoys running, taco Tuesday, and occasionally leaving the library.

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