By the time they finish dental school, most dentists are familiar with the concept of "burn out" and recognize that they have chosen a profession that can be particularly stressful at times. In fact, many of the dentists we consult with initially describe what they're experiencing as "burn out." However, this can be problematic, particularly if the dentist ends up needing to file a disability claim.
The problem with using this term as shorthand to describe what a dentist is experiencing is that it opens the door for the insurance company to trivialize and/or (purposefully) misunderstand the nature of the dentist's symptoms and limitations, and claim that the dentist is just "stressed out" and not actually disabled.
Because we know that dentists use the term "burn out" in a lot of different contexts, we always press further. Sometimes we find out that the dentist is just a little stressed out, unhappy with his or her work schedule, doesn't get along with his or her co-workers, etc., and doesn't really have a legitimate basis for filing a claim. However, more often than not, when we ask follow-up questions, it becomes apparent that the dentist is not dealing with run-of-the-mill stress, but is in fact experiencing severe symptoms and limitations (e.g. unpredictable panic attacks) that make it unsafe for the dentist to be practicing on patients.
But even when the more severe symptoms are present, it can be difficult to determine when to file. Anxiety is different from, for example, an injury caused by a car accident. There typically is no clear onset date, and it can be difficult to determine when the anxiety has reached the point where the dentist should step away from dentistry, in order to protect both the dentist's health and the safety of his or her patients.
The first step in this process is to consult with a mental healthcare professional, who can determine if you have a diagnosable condition. As noted above, clinical anxiety is different than "burn out" or stress, and there is an entire family of anxiety disorders (for example, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety).
As noted in prior posts, we are not healthcare professionals, and obviously cannot comment on whether a particular diagnosis is appropriate given certain symptoms. However, we can share some symptoms that we have found to be common among our dentist clients who have filed successful claims for anxiety, such as:
- Panic attacks (shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, dizziness, nausea, intense fear and sense of impending doom)
- Embarrassment/avoiding staff, friends and family
- Excessive worry/ruminations
- Restlessness, fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating
- Irritability/poor frustration tolerance
- Fatigue/sleep disturbances
- Muscle tension
- Going back to re-do work that was already done/obsessing over decreased quality of care
- Tearfulness, depressed mood, weight loss/gain, guilt, shame
In our experience, these symptoms also tend to result in a downward spiral that can be difficult for the dentist to snap out of without stepping away from the clinical setting and seeking professional help. We often hear of situations where a dentist will experience a panic attack over performing a procedure or interacting with a difficult patient, then feel guilty or called out for inconveniencing other staff or colleagues, which causes him or her to become more anxious, and thus more likely to have another panic attack. Stuck in this loop, dentists with anxiety tend to avoid triggers as much as possible and their quality of work, goodwill at the practice, and own health and relationships generally suffer as a result.
Ultimately, if you are thinking of filing a disability claim, one of the primary questions you should ask yourself is: "Is it safe for me to be practicing on patients, given my symptoms and limitations?" If the answer is no, you should seek professional help and file a disability claim (if your policy provides coverage for mental conditions like anxiety).
In our next and last post in this series, we will discuss some of the challenges dentists face when filing a claim based on anxiety.
Information offered purely for general informational purposes and not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. Anyone reading this post should not act on any information contained herein without seeking professional counsel from an attorney.