Think about the End First: Dr. DiDonato's Advice for Residents

Aug. 22, 2023

Joseph DiDonato, DDS, MBA, describes himself as a natural teacher.

“As soon as I learn something new, I have to go find someone to teach,” he said.

In fact, he consistently makes time to learn something new, especially if it’s science related.

Portrait of Dr. DiDonato
Dr. DiDonato has been teaching part-time at EIOH since 1982.

“One of my past times is to just get on the internet and find out things like how was an electron first weighed,” he explained. “Or how did they figure out the weight of the earth, and how did they first figure out the speed of light?”

And when he’s not looking up random science facts, practicing dentistry, teaching EIOH residents, renovating his home, playing with his French Bulldogs, reading scientists’ biographies or woodworking, he’s a serious fossil hunter. 

“I’ve been on many fossil expeditions, including trips to Morocco, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Brazil and China,” he said. Sounds like quite an adventure, but if and when he finds a fossil, he can’t keep it.

“In most countries, the fossil is the property of the country,” he explained. “That’s ok, it’s the excitement of the search and to see the fossils that have already been discovered beautifully displayed in museums throughout the world. It’s just fabulous to see the transition of how birds once had teeth in their beaks and claws on their wings and how their wings actually developed from their forelimbs.”

With such a wide range of interests, he finally landed on dentistry after carefully considering several other career paths.  He grew up in Lake Ronkonkoma, a hamlet on Long Island and about 70 miles from New York City. He graduated from New York University Langone Health School of Dentistry and attended Eastman’s GPR program, graduating in 1982.

“I liked the idea of the hospital residency and that is was associated with Eastman, which had a very good reputation,” he said about why he chose Eastman Institute.

After the residency, Dr. DiDonato joined two practices in Rochester - half time at Elmwood Dental Group and halftime at Westside Health Center, in addition to teaching part-time at Eastman.

“I’ve always been interested in community health, and I sincerely believe we owe it to our community to help,” he said.

Dr. DiDonato spent several years attending part-time at SMH, but as Eastman grew and established more outreach programs, he began working every Friday at the downtown clinic.

“As you get older, you start to better appreciate the sheer volume of information that young residents have to pick up,” he said. “I’ve become more sympathetic to that over time so I want to try and make that experience as painless as possible and encourage them to establish some good habits and not make the same mistakes perhaps that others have.”

One way he does this is to have the residents write their own obituary.

“They are always surprised at this assignment, but it helps them start thinking about the long term and lifts their eyes up off the immediate case,” he said.

Another thought-provoking exercise Dr. DiDonato does is to write 9,600 on the board and ask them what this number represents. “Almost no one knows that it represents 20 days a month, times 12 months a year over a 40-year career,” he said. “It makes them think how valuable each day in practice will be in their career.”

He also teaches them cockpit resource management, a tool used to train pilots. “It teaches pilots to subdue their ego and take full advantage of everyone’s skill and contributions in the cockpit,” Dr. DiDonato explained. “I relate that to the operatory and encourage residents to take advantage of the benefits realized from an experienced dental assistant and attending to improve patient care and learning.”

Portrait of Dr. Chen
Dr. Samuel chen

“I enjoy working with Dr. DiDonato because he has a teaching style that challenges me to think critically in the context of both public health and private practice,” said GPR Resident Dr. Samuel Chen. “He always lets me explain my decisions and then discusses the benefits or consequences he foresees based on his own experiences. If there's one word that comes to mind for Dr. DiDonato it is ‘thorough.’”

“Many residents spend only one year with us,” he added. “It takes four or five months to get adjusted, and then you’re working hard for another several months, and they have to cram a lot of heavy thinking in a very short period of time.”

Most of the residents call Dr. DiDonato ‘Coach.’ Because of the limited time the residents have at Eastman, one of his main goals is to build their self-confidence. Like the obituary exercise, he encourages residents to think about the end before the beginning.

“There’s no eraser at the end of a scalpel, so they really need to be confident in their approach,” he said.

“I encourage them to think about all the things that can go wrong and then how they’ll handle it if it does.”

When they ask Dr. DiDonato a question, sometimes he’ll withhold the answer to get them to search for it. “It’s fulfilling to watch them get there themselves, instead of just spoon-feeding them.”

“Dr. DiDonato is extremely helpful to our GPR residents. Despite a busy private practice, he comes regularly to our Downtown Center site to oversee the residents,” said Dr. Sangeeta Gajendra, professor and clinical chief, EIOH Community Dentistry.

Portrait of Dr. Sangeeta Gajendra
Dr. Sangeeta Gajendra

“He is often found in our treatment rooms, discussing cases with our residents and stepping in to help in case of complications. Our residents seem to be more confident when Dr. DiDonato attends in the clinic.”

Dr. DiDonato wrote his own obituary several years ago, and hopes his legacy to be all about patient care and teaching.”  He added that the benefits of teaching go two ways.  “I get a lot out of it, and often learn things from the residents.”  

“I have a lot of fun with the residents because I still feel like I’m 32 years old,” he joked. I can identify with all the things that they’re doing and I think that at this stage of the game it’s a real privilege for me to be able to interact with them.

“I really enjoy my Fridays,” he added. “I really do.”