How to motivate your dentist

Sitting in the dentist’s chair yesterday, and knowing I will return tomorrow (don’t worry, it is only root canal work), I realized I had nothing to read.  So I started thinking about the immediate incentives of the dentist, or lack thereof.

I have a very good dentist, but surely there is variation in the willingness of a dentist, across patients, to try harder and do a better job. 

When there is no incentive at all, perhaps the dentist does not try hard enough to alleviate your pain.  Yes there is long-run reputation, but Daniel Kahneman and others find that the duration of a pain has little bearing on your memory of that pain.  So patient reports, as they are filtered into the marketplace, are an imperfect signal.  Furthermore for any given average reputation your dentist seeks, you still want to receive relatively favorable treatment within the distribution of patients.

You might pay a bonus at the end of the visit, if you thought the performance of the dentist was especially good.  But then the dentist might put you though too little pain.  "Fragmented tooth?  Don’t worry, you can ignore it."

Last year I stopped going to a dentist who put me through too much unnecessary pain while cleaning my teeth.

Perhaps you should pretend you are a dentist yourself?  (Toward that end, here is a dental dictionary.)  Or a lawyer?  Should you talk about the breadth of your social circle?

With my new dentist, I pretend to have no fear.  And at the end of the visit I said what a great job she did.  I expect better performance by supporting her self-image as a good dentist and I find high-powered incentives difficult to apply.

But might I improve on this approach?  Comments are open…


By this reasoning, just prior to your session you should also ask your dentist how she likes being in the chair and what her dentist is like.

Here's a somewhat counterintuitive argument. Acemogolus Kremer and Mian have a working paper in which they suggest that the existence of high powered incentives for teachers can lead to under compensation of teachers in the marketp[lace. They suggest that a solution to this problem is the formation of firms and/or provision of teaching services by the government. In other words dull the incentives. One test for this might be to see if dentists in countries with government run dentistry put their patients through more "optimal" levels of pain. Another approach would be to see if dentists at large practices where people cannot choose their dentists have better pain results. (Aside if you could choose your dentist high powered incentives would still exist).

I like your approach of patronizing your dentist by telling her "what a great job she did". That should work! You might try throwing in a treat, like a cookie or even a Ben and Jerry's gift certificate.

i've never tried with a dentist, but from experience i can say that informing doctors of all kinds that you're a litigator instantly increases the standard of care. it's pretty incredible.

Extrapolating from some evidence on hysterectomies might suggest that the best strategy is to pretend you are a dentist who is married to a lawyer (or something along those lines): "Rate of hysterectomy is lower among female doctors and lawyers' wives"

Motivating a dentist or lawyer is the same as motivating any worker. Tips and bonuses only motivate in certain scenarios. Gratitude works when it's really genuine and well deserved but, like any compliment, it often comes across as fake or superficial. Big companies motivate workers through bonuses and promotions and status which certainly doesn't apply with a dentist. The best way to motivate a worker is to find work that really interests them or work that has some significant consequence (curing cancer or some dramatic business triumph) or something where lots of people are paying attention (if the dentist's work was televised, he would be much more motivated).

Yes but how do you feel TODAY? Usually they shoot you up with so much novocaine that you don't mind shootin' the breeze with them on the way out. The true test comes when the painkiller wears advice - fill your codeine presciption :)

To complicate the issue just a little: different patients want different levels of pain relief. One of my sisters refuses novocain because she doesn't like the swelling. I'm a coward, but I'll accept some pain in exchange for speed. My wife wants complete painlessness. Is it odd that dentists don't easily adjust to patient tastes? My sense is that while they differ among themselves, they don't try to adapt to patient preferences.

What about a "ratemydentist" website, like rate my professor

Incentives matter. But so does selection. This isn't answering the question, but the size and strength of the dentist's hands make a difference. If I was choosing a dentist, gender would be a factor.

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