Good Life

Wide-open look at a career

Never mind that you’ve been driven mad this past week by your kids’ Halloween-candyfueled sugar highs — what about their future health? What about their teeth? Michael Acierno, a dentist in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, says parental guilt and responsibility is precisely why this time of year is busiest for those in his profession.

“The main reason is insurance,” Acierno says. “Everyone decides, ‘I need to get in before I lose my benefits before the end of the year.’And the guilt of all the candy. The parents are like, “I’ve got to get them in for a cleaning.’ ”

Easing the guilt

If you’ve got a good dentist, he or she is prepared for this busy time. For professionals, this isn’t as simple as just burning the midnight oil. Dentists must stay on top of trends, new procedures and the business side of running an office throughout their careers.

“You really have to stay on top of the profession; you can’t just go off of what you learned in dental school,” Acierno says. “Things change. Patients like all the new up-and-coming things.”

Acierno points to as simple a change as tooth-colored fillings, the norm now over the silver fillings he was using when he graduated from dental school in 1999.

Dentists must take several hours of continuing education credits each year to maintain their license.

For example, MetLife, a provider of dental health care plans, offers onlinecontinuing education programs for dentists and hygienists in areas such as computer-based record keeping, managing patients with common medical conditions and the use of lasers in dental medicine.

“We travel to continuing education courses, spend a lot of time doing research on the internet and taking video education courses on the internet,” says Steven Roth, a dentist in New York City. “The real education only begins after dental school.”

Acierno takes advantage of these seminars to keep up with the business side of being a dentist, which he says was not something addressed when he was in dental school.

“Everyone is looking at their insurance a little closer,” Acierno says.

“Three years ago, most people probably didn’t even know what their benefits were. Now everyone’s watching their budget. They see what they’re paying for their premiums now and think, with every little toothache, they’re going to see what this is.”

Acierno cites dealing with insurance companies as his least favorite part of his job, but he and his staff work hard to deal with any discrepancies an insurer may have with treatment to ease the burden on the patient. “We take care of the headaches forthem,” he says. “Very rarely do they have to get involved.”

People who like people

Easing the insurance process for patients is just one way dentists must take care of patients. Acierno says key to the profession is being a peoplepleaser.

“It’s not like being a physician where you see a patient half an hour before a procedure and you never have to see them again,” Acierno says.

“Here you’re everything. You have to have good composure with your patients.

“I’ve known guys who weren’t very successful because they weren’t very compassionate. That’s one thing I noticed from dental school — you really have to interact one on one with your patients, which I love.”

In addition to his patients, Roth says he enjoys the challenges the different aspects of his career provide.

“I get to be an artist, a scientist, a marketing professional and a psychologist,” Roth says.

Those considering a career in dentistry should do their best to get a first-hand look at all of those aspects of the profession however possible, Acierno suggests.

“Do as much research as you can,” he says. “Get a part-time job or observe a dentist.”

Acierno says that along with the mental challenges of keeping up with trends and interacting with patients, the job is physically challenging as well.

“You’re working in a small space,” he says.

But what you do has a big impact on a patient’s mental and physical health.

Suggestions for students

The American Dental Association has resources for those considering careers in dentistry (


For high school students: Take math courses such as algebra and sciencecourses like biology and chemistry. Consider taking advanced placement courses to earn college credit while you’re still in school. Job shadow or volunteer at your family dentist office.

For college students: For your four-year undergraduate program, you should be intently focused on completing all prerequisites, such as physics and organic chemistry. In your junior year, you will need to apply for and take the DAT, the Dental Admissions Test, and being applying to dental programs. Senior year will be full of interviews at dental schools.