Is Dentistry a Profession or a Business?
Throughout dental school, students are asked whether dentistry is a profession or a business. No harm in asking. It is clear to some that dentistry is just a business. Like car mechanics, dentists sell services to people. A patient has trouble with a tooth. The dentist inspects the tooth, diagnoses a problem, offer treatment options, and then fixes the issue based on the patient’s finances. Though the answer might be clear to some, the student fails to learn what it means to be a dentist when she or he does not examine the question itself and simply asserts a common sense opinion.
Do No Harm
We can get a better understanding by examining the question itself. Let us, for example, take the question to be asking whether a dentist has moral obligations as professionals or none at all as businesspeople. The question then becomes simple to answer. It can be agreed that businesspeople have obligations, not just commitments to shareholders or employees (obligations to others), but to maximizing their own pocketbooks (obligations to self). It is inconsistent to say that dentistry is just a business and has no moral obligations at the same time.
One may feel that commitments to shareholders, etc. are not moral in nature and businesspeople have no real moral obligations. I would like to point out that as moral agents, people in general have a duty to do no harm. This entails that the car mechanic does not exploit a customer with deceitful car problems, manipulate her to get unwanted services, and/or inadequately fix the car. Though dentists are businesspeople, this does not imply that they are excused from moral obligations.
The more important part of the initial question is to help identify what unique moral obligations dentists do have due to the fact that they belong to a profession. Many of us want to be part of a profession. We benefit from shared experiences, social events, trust from the public, etc. Dentistry, at large, has made certain commitments to the public to maintain autonomy over dental services and trust. Some of these commitments are reflected in the oath dental students take when entering dental school. Patients have certain expectations of dentist due to promises made by the profession historically.
Unless you specify to every patient how you personally practice, you are declaring that you will uphold those public commitments when you call yourself a dental professional. If you intentionally deviate from your professional commitments, you exploit the trust of your patients and other dental professionals. Exploiting people is doing harm. Thus, dentists who want to present themselves as professionals have a moral obligation to be aware of the profession’s ethical commitments to the public.
Become aware of the professional principles dental professions promise to uphold in the Intro to Dental Ethics and review the Hippocratic Oath (links below).