Compassion Fatigue: Balancing Your Practice & Personal Health

Dentists often ask me: “When is the ideal time to sell my practice?”  I have always maintained that a dentist should sell only if one of these three conditions applies:

  • The dentist is ill and envisions a long-term disability or illness;
  • He or she is financially secure and has a plan for the next phase of his or her life; or
  • If the dentist is sick and tired of continuing in clinical practice

This article is aimed at the dentist who is sick and tired.  He or she may be suffering from what many in the profession are now calling compassion fatigue.

Several clients report that they feel overworked: they have too many patients demanding too much clinical time.  Some feel stressed and worry they may be suffering a form of burn-out.  They want to do their best for their patients, but also would like to spend more time with their families.  I first heard the phrase compassion fatigue several years ago and feel that it defines a situation unique to the dental profession.  Dentists, as a rule, are compassionate individuals.  They studied dentistry specifically to care for others and to help people with their health-care needs.  Unfortunately, this compassion may conflict with the obligation to operate a profitable business while allowing for enough time to enjoy family and friends.  Although every working person struggles to balance personal and professional demands, many dentists report they feel this type of fatigue because of factors specific to the profession of dentistry.

Some dentists go beyond reasonable work limits and over commit themselves to their patients, often at the expense of the business and/or the family.  Even though many dentists may work a four rather than a five-day week, those four days are intense and often demand more work hours than are reported.

The life chart of each dentist reveals that he or she is:
a) a health-care provider;
b) a business owner responsible for the financial well-being of the business and the employees; and
c) a husband or a wife, a sibling, a parent or a child with all the responsibilities that each of these brings.

As a dentist, you have an obligation to balance your life and stay healthy, both for your own well-being and for the many people who rely upon you.

If you think you may be suffering from compassion fatigue, consider these suggestions:

  • Schedule fewer patients each day.
  • Lengthen your individual appointments by one or two units of time, slowing down your operating pace.
  • Resist the temptation to accept every new patient who calls.
  • Arrange for reliable emergency coverage.

Some dentist may need to raise fees to reflect their experience and skill, in order to free up clinical time.

If these measures don’t alleviate your stress you may wish to sell your practice.  A busy, growing practice will often sell for a high price.  If the practice is declining due to the dentist’s compassion fatigue, invariably it will sell for much less than its perceived value.  Sadly, many dentists choose to sell a practice when it is performing much like its owner, in a state of what could be called practice fatigue.

When do you think is the best time to sell?