What Model Works?

nick-fewings-C2zhShTnl5I-unsplas_20210621-114222_1 Here, There, Everywhere

Once upon a time, as all the stories, good, and bad, start, a dental surgeon would have a chair of some sort in his (almost always his) south facing sitting room and ply his trade. George Bernard Shaw in the 1897 play “You never can tell” describes such a set up in the home of Dr Valentine, a “half crown” dentist. The half crown refers to the standard treatment fee, not his clinical technique.

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How can you tell a good dentist?

Sig_20210222-190251_1 Sign of a _good_ dentist

There is always a risk in asking the question “How can you tell a good dentist?” Some people reading it will take offence, others may feel threatened, a few will read and conclude half way through that there is no point in continuing. Hopefully there will be the persistent ones who will take some time to ponder the question and even come up with an answer or two, if you do please feel free to share.

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Every Generation Blames The One Before


That opening line from the song “The Living Years” resonates with anyone who has lost a parent, grandparent, teacher or mentor and comes to appreciate that, “we are all prisoners of what our predecessors held dear”.

One of my prepared talks (post-covid bookings are now being taken!) includes me reading a paragraph from one of the required textbooks of my undergraduate years, Immediate and Replacement Dentures. Chapter two, “The patient as a person”, has a section called “The quiet mind”, this starts with a definition of the normal patient which reads, “The normal patient is one in whom the loss of teeth follows previously satisfactory dental treatment”. When presenting, I pause and read it again emphasising loss of teeth, normal and satisfactory.

The reactions of the audience, if I am fortunate enough to have attracted one, is varied, the baby boomers nod and smile in remembrance, Generation “X" shake their heads in disapproval, Millennial (Generation “Y”) are cross and want me de-platformed, Generation “Z” need to be revived after the trauma and demand post-presentation counselling.

Not only do I believe that subdividing groups of people into “Gens” in order to predict their behaviour is akin to astrology for sociologists but it can also prove confusing and futile. There are rarely true generation gaps in a profession like Dentistry where changes are introduced slowly and incrementally. Teaching of undergraduates reflects the previous doctrines filtered through the published research, the experiences of the, as yet, unpublished opinions and the perhaps more dogmatic, heavy hands of department heads.

All this of course is filtered and influenced by that relatively new group, the educationalists, or specialists in education, whose views on the manner of teaching delivery may have a significant bearing on what, how and why knowledge is delivered by whom, where and when.
I was moved to write this piece for two reasons. The first was another in a long line of consultations from dentists who are deeply unhappy in and with their chosen profession. Almost all of them tell me that they felt they were too young, usually 14 to 16, when they made the decision to study dentistry and that their undergraduate training, whilst fine at the science of dentistry, hadn’t prepared them for the reality of life in (UK) dentistry.

My other stimulus was reading David Epstein’s book, “Range”. In it the author examines the virtue of early specialisation with many hours of deliberate training in one field compared with the value of being a generalist.

I am not sure if I have come to any definite conclusions. What I know is that I never wanted to be anything but a dentist and it took me 25 years to accept that I didn’t enjoy being a “wet-fingered”, micro-managing surgeon. With hindsight I can see that I spent too long climbing up the wrong wall, my ladder looked perfect, others were envious of my achievements and success, but it didn’t make me happy, indeed quite the opposite.

A proportion of dental graduates are not suited to the careers available to them and would walk away if they could. Unfortunately the pressure from parents and peers, not forgetting the financial implications, means that leaving is the social equivalent of not turning up for your own wedding. For many who persist this means that further down the road comes a moment where they wake up, unhappy, wondering, “is that all there is?”
Epstein quotes Winston Churchill whose words are used to encourage unhappy, unsuited people to show “grit”, “Never give in”, he said, “never, never, never, never”. What nobody tells you is that he finished the sentence by saying, “except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
What could be done? Could we go down the American route of an honours “Bachelor of Medical Science” degree followed by a three-year dental programme taking 46 weeks per year of proper work? A 21 year old is in a better position to make a career decision than a 17 year old and other pathways are available to those who are unsuited.

Would a better career path in general Dental Practice work? Perhaps a three-year post-grad programme with spells in different independent and corporate practices, NHS, specialist and private with clear transitions, supervision and significant mentoring. Some years ago there was a brave move to start an independent vocational training scheme, which foundered after the intervention of the NHS who were opposed to anything that they could not fully control.

What we have can be inconsistent and does not help everyone. Dentistry is unsure of itself. Is it still a speciality of medicine? Does it want to truly embrace teamwork, if so exactly what model works best? Or is it straddling the divide with one foot rooted in the disease model and the other trying to run away along the road of cosmetics?

Are we failing the next generation? Will more and more unsuited young people be ground beneath the NHS wheels?

You say you just don't see it, He says it's perfect sense,
You just can't get agreement, In this present tense.

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Are you a leader?

leadership-3331244_192_20201207-112554_1 Leadership lined up

“If you think you’re a leader and no one is following you, you’re just out for a walk.” Peter Drucker.


I hesitated before putting finger to keyboard on the subject of leadership. A Google search shows in excess of 2 billion results on the subject. What can I possibly add to that? The answer is to only share my take on the subject, which in spite of all the papers, videos, courses and hot air is still poorly addressed and understood.

Two years ago, in those carefree pre-Covid days, I researched, wrote and presented half a dozen talks on leadership in the hope that I might in some way help to improve things in my nano-field of influence. One of the main points that I made then is that we often look at the wrong people for examples of good leadership. Certainly the procrastination and self-interest shown by politicians and business leaders does little to stimulate recommendation or inspire imitation to those owning, running and working in small businesses.

So what is it leadership? One sidestepping answer to that is, “I’m not really sure but I know it when I see it.” In his landmark book, “Good to Great” Jim Collins expected to find the leaders of successful large companies were “those with high profiles and big personalities who became celebrities”. In reality they were often “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy individuals with a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”.

Dentistry and other professions used to attract large numbers of the latter but I do see growing amounts of attention seekers who appear to believe that success is directly proportional to Instagram posts and can happen almost overnight. Perhaps I am becoming jaded but the retreating tide of 2020 plus the year to come will show just who has been swimming without a suit.

Another regular way of talking about leaders is to compare and contrast them with managers and, until a decade or so ago, I was as guilty of that as the rest. Then it struck me that in the field of small and micro businesses it is impossible to be a good leader without managing; and it is equally impossible to be a manager without leading. Shoving individuals into defined silos doesn’t work, we must all wear different hats to suit circumstances. There are some, but very few, absolutes, there must be overlaps in some areas.

In my experience with successful leaders in dentistry and other small businesses I have found several characteristics that they all share to a certain extent. In many these traits are not instinctive but have been learned by experience and acceptance.

  • Pragmatism. They understand the practical consequences of situations, decisions and actions. Whilst they are aware of theory and dogma they know that flexibility is needed for success.
  • Understanding. They both understand the business they are in and that they are in business. They learn from experiences and apply and share what they have learnt.
  • Empathy. They are able to see things from the point of view of others, can rationalise that and know that there are limits.
  • Delegate but don’t abdicate. Knowing where the buck stops means that they have personal systems with checks so they can ensure nobody is allowed to feel unsupported.
  • Communicators. Their team understands where they are heading, why they are doing what they are asked to do, and how they are expected to do it.
  • Gratitude. They are grateful for the opportunities they have had, the lessons that life has taught them, and the people with whom they spend their time.
  • Constant. They know the value of constancy in those areas where it is appropriate. They support their co-workers and understand the need for stability in others. When change is necessary, they take time to ensure that all grasp the why, how and when it will happen. There is only one set of principles and they apply to everybody.
  • Don’t hide. They front up when they need to, they know everyone on their team no matter how large and there is no area of the business with which they are not familiar. They have systems to ensure they are on top of everything.
  • Share (the responsibility and rewards). Things go wrong as well as right in any size of business and their attitude is that where possible it will be shown to be a system error rather than an individual blame. That way the business will evolve to reduce mistakes.
  • Generous (with their time). They know that time invested in helping and encouraging others will be reflected in a culture of both individual and team growth.

Warren Bennis wrote in, “Becoming a Leader”, “I don’t know if leadership can be taught but I know that it can be learned”. He described “The Cauldron of Leadership” as formative events, critical struggles or serious challenges that force leaders to learn, grow and think differently about themselves. The cauldron theory is fine, but can be traumatic, and you are better off paying attention to what is happening and reflecting and considering what you have learned.

If I have managed to make you think about the boxes that you tick, or not, in your leadership roles then my work is done.

To your success.

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Tony Smith

"Management is doing the thing...

Another insightful post. As a profession, many of us are aware and want to lead by example to our patients and staff. Our managem... Read More
Friday, 11 December 2020 09:57
Alun Rees


Hi Tony Thanks for taking the time to respond. It's always good to know that someone is reading what I write. Kind Regards Alun... Read More
Friday, 11 December 2020 11:20
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Three H’s for success and happiness.

IMAGES Humility, Hubris, Humanity.

For several years it was my honour to be the opening speaker at the annual scientific meeting of the BDA Western Counties Branch, Young Dentist Group (YDG). The challenge for me in, say, 2016 was to try to share some perspective on changes in dentistry. In 2016 it had been 43 years since I embarked on my university studies, rolling that back another 43 years would take us 1930. I wondered what someone from those interwar, great crash and depression, times could have said to me that would have had any relevance to me in my post-qualification years. Eventually I chose to major on the letter “H” and look for similarities rather than changes.

Another “H”, neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, has written one of the best medical autobiographies that I have read. In “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery” he writes of the cases he has treated successfully and otherwise and the lessons he has learned. He describes his mistakes both surgical and human and the frustrations of his life with an honesty and insight that I can only envy and attempt to imitate.

Back to the YDG where, in my fifteen minutes in the spotlight, I attempted to describe the roles of Humility, Hubris and Humanity in success and failure. My naive younger self believed that the path to success was mostly straight with the occasional glitch of disappointment. Before Dental School I presumed that my skills would grow and develop in a largely logical and linear manner, much like building a wall with Fletton bricks. I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of quantum growth, where I would feel stuck at a level of inadequacy before suddenly acquiring, whatever it took to move up to the next level of competence.

Nor did I realise that there could be levels of competence that I would never, achieve and to which I could not even hope to aspire. Perhaps it was a good thing that I realised, early on, that my own skills and my temperament would always be limited. I could also see that there were those who were naturally, instinctively skilled, even artistic. Journeyman level is honourable enough as long as you have the humility to acknowledge and accept your own limitations and to develop your skills as far as you are able.

There are far more problems in all walks of life caused by hubris. Defined as excessive pride or self-confidence, there can be a natural tendency with new graduates to run before they can walk and pride will come before a fall. With the fall should come learning of limitations, awareness of boundaries and hopefully acknowledgement of what we don’t know.

Henry Marsh describes the “Keynote Speakers” in his subject who, “Clearly had amazing results way beyond anything that I could achieve. People for whom self doubt is never an issue and whose post-op scans never showed a trace of residual tumours.” He then talks about Hubris driving him on, the risks of over confidence and the disasters that arose. I am reminded of the Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) associated with newer Short Term Orthodontic and other techniques who are paid by companies and make claims and encourage use of one particular system whilst trying to maintain a veneer of independence.

Finally, we reach humanity, which I defined as the quality of being kind, thoughtful, and sympathetic towards others. In our early years this can be an overwhelming urge to help everyone and to treat each case to its limits. Experience should show us our limitations but there are some who do not acknowledge they have any, or are so intent on treating cases that they put the treatment before the patient. Marsh says, “On reflection you only get good at doing the very difficult cases if you get a lot of practice but that means making a lot of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you have to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on or at least have a pretty thick skin. If you're a nice doctor you'll probably give up, let nature take its course and stick to the simpler cases."

Perhaps our desire should be to become good surgeons rather than great surgeons. It can be difficult to balance pressure from patients to do something, especially if you have been looking for a case to do. The enthusiasm on the Monday to find a patient who matches the technique learned on Saturday’s course has led many to regret their actions.

Knowing when to treat, and not to treat, or instead to refer is a big skill itself and requires complete detachment from, and yet total compassion for, the patient and what is ultimately in their best interest. Awareness of Humility, Hubris and Humanity may help us to sleep at night.

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If all the world was a swimming pool . . .

water_cropped Deep water

If all the world was a swimming pool.

I sat down to write something that would show insight or perhaps provoke a response if only to get the reader thinking about their situation and how they might improve it.

Of course I would like to impress or inspire enough for you to pick up the phone and employ my services as a coach and business mentor, but that is secondary.

This column was inspired by the behaviour of several clients. It struck me that the best metaphor was that of swimmers at a pool.

We all start unable to swim, as we know it, with poorly defined strokes and no style. Some are lucky to come from “swimming” families who visit pools routinely, or perhaps have their own pool. Others have parents who are frightened of water, have never learned to swim and avoid aquatic recreation.

We all eventually go through dental school where we are taught a version of the theory and practice of survival in the water. Depending on the school there will be an emphasis on different strokes and skills. After five years we can keep ourselves afloat doing our basic strokes - even if we still have to put the occasional foot on the bottom of the pool for security.

It’s what happens after that interests me; it depends very much on the individual, their attitude to risk, their ambition and luck.

Until VT arrived, new dental paddlers were thrown into the deep end of the pool, the wave machine turned on and, although they swallowed a lot of water, their basic stroke helped them to survive. Confidence grew, widths became lengths, a few strokes under water and duck dives.

With VT a lifeguard was assigned who checked they were still afloat and not dragging anybody under.

Many practiced in different pools until they found one that suited them, and the owner sold them a share, some wanted their own pool and built or bought it.

Some new paddlers throw themselves in not sure if it’s the deep or shallow end. water2

Fewer still climb to the highest diving board jump in and somehow survive.

Some drown.

Some swimmers become perpetual associates. They never trust the water, are frightened of getting out of their depth, they swim widths and occasionally lengths but always stay within touching distance of the poolside. They move from pool to pool dreaming of the one that is warm enough, the water is calm and they can do whatever style they wish. They want their pool owner to supply designer swimsuits and send them for advanced swimming courses that teach skills, unusable in their home pool.

The 21st century has seen a new phenomenon. The individual who inevitably has the “abs & pecs” gets up on the springboard and bounces up and down a few times with great style and noise. They attract a lot of attention, take a few photos for their Instagram feed and head off without getting their hair wet.

There are nervous types who go on expensive courses on swimming. They listen to everybody, swimmer or not about how to swim best. They read books about how to swim. They walk round the pool, put their foot in to feel the temperature. Eventually they go down the ladder and swim but never, ever go out of their depth. 

Some become NHS (National Health Swimmers). They used to enjoy swimming, they felt they had a role in life and swimming was their duty. Nobody told them was that there was a wave machine at the end of the pool, the speed of which was inexorably increasing. As fast as they swim, as hard as they work they don’t make any progress. The depth of the pool is increasing, the flippers, worn for compliance not progress, are getting heavier and make things worse, not better. They’re frightened that if they make it to the side of the pool to leave their swimsuit will have holes in embarrassing places.

Who succeeds? The ones who work hard at being better swimmers, who know about all the strokes and concentrate on the one or two that gives them most happiness. They focus on being smooth swimmers, not fast, making as few ripples as possible. They understand that sometimes the pool can get uncomfortable, the water temperature goes up and down and that to be a successful swimmer you need to be fit and keep practicing.

They know that they don’t know all there is to know but they join a club and work with a coach or mentor they will be helped to improve. They talk to other good and successful swimmers and they learn how to stay afloat.

We learn in pools but we must now swim in the ocean. The riptides are dangerous the currents changing and the water deep and cold. This is no place for social swimmers. Only those who are 100% focussed on being successful swimmers will make it to the next beach.

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Keith Hayes

Waving or drowning?

Excellent posting Alun and really relevant to present times. Just wanted to say, if you aren't waving or at least managing to kee... Read More
Friday, 07 August 2020 11:02
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The Dental Covid Sweepstake

horses-racing-painting-copy They're all set for the off in the Dental COVID Sweepstake

After three months of lockdown in Dentistry how are the nags doing? Nobody quite knows where the finish line is in this race so the bookies aren’t paying out yet a while; but as far as the punters are concerned there are few surprises.

Let’s remind ourselves of the runners and riders.  First the two back markers involved in their own race, the dental mediocrity cup, these set off slowly and didn’t seem to want to take part in the race, in fact CeeQuooSee’s jockey went home as soon as the starter waved the flag.

First wearing the camouflage colours and helmet of the Whitehall stud is NashBasher with Sara Hurley on board. Not for the first time this runner is wearing blinkers, which have been adjusted by several committees and has trained on a diet of dogma. The rumour is that this poor creature has never recovered from its owners believing it could be a carthorse, a flat horse and a steeplechaser. In fact since its previous trainer, Barty Cockcroft, had it gelded without an anaesthetic in 2006 it has hardly capable of giving children a ride on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare. Rumour has it the glue factory beckons. A great shame because in its day its predecessors gave sterling service on all tracks and courses, whether the going was hard or soft.

Next up is CeeQuooSee. She is a mare from Compliance out of Paperwork. This is one that promised much when it first came on the scene but has repeatedly failed to deliver. Once again its owners were hoping for a Derby winner but as its sire had only ever delivered milk and its dam was used for dressage it looked pretty, but was ultimately useless. Distinctive coloured silks featuring red boxes and black tick marks. It is notable for travelling with dozens of trainers, advisers and stable maids; it often runs with two jockeys to show diversity and fairness. Loves attending these meetings but rarely performs. Uniquely it trains on a diet of tea and biscuits. Its stable mates, Policy document and Protocol feature in the carriage race that takes place after this meeting.

The third runner is GeeDeeCee. Nobody is completely sure of the parentage of this one, for years its line was full of pedigree and thoroughbreds dominated. Great names from his bloodline include Noble Nairn and Bradlaw’s Barstool. Unfortunately it is rumoured that at some time during the last decade the gene pool was adulterated and the resultant progeny have had less than noble characters. Certainly there have been moves amongst the racing followers to limit its appearances due to its spiteful and aggressive behaviour. It wears a muzzle to prevent biting, and the other jockeys give it a wide berth due to its habit of kicking wildly.

GeeDeeCee is trained and ridden by Billy Moyes who has a chequered past in many sports. He is wearing the characteristic hand made pink silks of its owners, a syndicate from the legal profession. For a horse that has a poor character it wins a lot of races probably due to the dodgy handicapping system. Shows great stamina, nothing seems to discourage it. Due to some arcane rule of the Jockey Club the owners get to keep all prize money but GeeDeeCee’s stable fees and costs are paid from donations from other owners and riders.

The fourth of our horses is Wimpole Wonder. The old joke said that to be a successful Dental Horse you needed the stamina of a shire horse, the speed of a Derby horse and the brains of a rocking horse. Wimpole Wonder was little fancied at the start of the year but has proved itself to be an absolute banker. Owned by the largest syndicate in UK dental history there is now a waiting list to buy a share. For many years it was considered to be a plodder with many detractors but during the current season it has shown to have class and determination. The recent change of trainer is probably a coincidence but the good habits learned at Ward’s stables in Herefordshire have come to the fore since the move to Woodrow’s yard.

Unique in training methods is the collegiate method espoused and led by Mick Strong-arm. Cometh the hour cometh the man. Thankfully he isn’t riding the horse, that duty is taken by Damian Apollonian who has come out of retirement for the race. Distinctive colours of pink and white checks representing healthy gums and teeth, with the prominent shield showing the staff and spirochete.

There were fears that a lot of late entries that tried to claim the BDA’s place in the race, Private Parts, College Boys and Facebook Shouters would have an influence. So far anyway the smart money is on Wimpole Wonder and she’s my tip as the stayer to take the honours in the Dental Covid Sweepstake.

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Turn the clock back 40 years to the land where Mrs Thatcher was starting to flex her muscles, sharpening her deregulation scythe and readying to privatise any and everything. What changes do I see in Dentistry today? There is one element that dominates professional lives. Nothing to do with their talent, skills or clinical judgement. Even less to do with good working or patient relationships, teams or outcomes that matter.

I am talking about compliance. Defined as “The act of complying with a wish, request, or demand, a synonym is “acquiescence” or “passive assent or agreement without protest”, and a legal definition implies “the abandonment of a right”.

Last month I accused the GDC being a sledgehammer used to crack nuts. This time I am levelling my sights at another organisation better known by its TLA (three letter acronym), the newer kid on the block, the Care Quality Commission. Set up in 2009 with the intention of “regulating and inspecting health and social care services in England” it has rarely if ever been seen as an ally by those who it “governs or directs according to rule”.

It was parachuted into dentistry with little consultation, minimal clarity and maximal condescension. This is not an unusual occurrence for matters relating to dentistry, long considered the awkward mob by government and much of the rest of medicine. “Necessary when you need them but resented for their freedom” was how a Whitehall Mandarin patient of mine who commuted every morning from Peterborough to London having served his time in the Department of Health described Dentistry.

The CQC’s stated role is to provide people with “safe, effective and high-quality care, and to encourage them to improve”, yet without inspection of clinical standards how can they judge “care” properly?

This statement from their website, says much that is wrong with the CQC.

We inspect 10% of dentists in England each year. You can use our inspection reports to help you understand the quality of care. We do not rate dentist services but we do highlight if a service is meeting the standard of care we would expect.

It was always bad fit, the wrong solution to the wrong problem, a knee jerk reaction to medical tragedies, particularly the Shipman affair; it started badly when its disgraced first Chief Executive was forced to resign.

The fundamental problem (like the GDC in many ways) is that of it being a compliance-based programme where rules of conduct are put in place. Penalties, which can be severe, are waiting for anyone who is seen to be out of step from the norm. The rules are obeyed in order to avoid the repercussions, hence (like the GDC) fear becomes the driving factor.

The dental businesses are not judged on their moral compass, rather on a right or wrong tick box which, too often, is administered and delivered by individuals who, may be for the most part well meaning, but have little or no clear idea of 21st century dentistry.

How could this be improved? I know I have spent too much time in Ireland because the answer once again is, “You wouldn’t want to start from here”. The CQC is a massive bureaucracy little suited to examining dental practices and the systems for Dentistry should be clearly different from that for Care Homes and Hospitals.

Rewarding aspirational practice, understanding the real differences between good, less good and bad practices plus properly evaluating what is meant to be truly well run. I would like to see fewer “inspections” with all the connotations of confrontation and clipboards they bring. Instead there should be far more conversation, communication and encouragement to reach not just the basic but higher standards ethically, culturally and clinically.

Of course now we come to the elephant in the room. The NHS; committed to getting more bangs for its, ever diminishing and inadequate buck, to being in control of all things health related from education through research and education. It ensures the blame for bad news is always as far distant from the top as possible.

Dental businesses are for the most part separate entities, even large corporates serve different communities with different people. The quality of care (it’s about quality of care) cannot be measured by an “inspection” of an off-the-peg compliance system once a decade.

There must be clarity about what is expected, better two-way communications and some obvious effort to regain the shattered goodwill of a profession which feels compliance has been used as a weapon to control it rather than to improve patient care.

Dentists look at the CQC and how it deals with what they know then despair about the rest of the Health and Social framework where out-dated inspection methods are used to address the wrong problems.

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Arthur McGroarty

The CQC nail hit squarely on t...

I have always said the CQC has no business being involved in Dentistry, basically just what Alun is saying, but far more eloquentl... Read More
Thursday, 20 February 2020 15:56
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2020 and the GDC - an open letter

HAMMER--NUT GDC and the dental profession

Happy 2020 to Dr Moyes and colleagues.

I hesitated before putting finger to keyboard on this topic, it’s too easy, and a real barn door isn’t it? In fact I wrote, rewrote, and finally binned, one piece and started again.

Here are some New Year wishes for the General Dental Council. They make demands and enforce what they say are patients’ expectations of the Dental profession; surely this should not be a one-way street?

Empathy. If there is one quality that is essential in any successful relationship it is empathy or “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. I have looked back through the last decade of the GDC and seen little evidence that they have made any concerted effort to either understand or share the feelings of the tens of thousands of people on their register. Lip service from the occasional survey perhaps, worded in such a way to avoid exploring the real fears of day-to-day clinical practice.

Context. All practices are different, all patients are different. There cannot be one rule for all. Yet it seems we are reaching a point where any treatment that is less than “ideal” is unacceptable and therefore negligent. I was able to convert my practice away from a reliance on the NHS in the early 90s. When I reached my personal ceiling and sold it I then did locums in different sorts of places and had my eyes opened. In some places the practice of dentistry is like working in a war zone with a shifting population, all with different wants, needs, expectations and budgets.

In the same way with the massive shift towards corporate and chain practices there can be pressures on, but little support for, younger dentists. When shareholder value, rather than patient care, becomes part of a company’s ethos the clinician is often caught in the middle between bean counters and patient expectations. It can take years to build an appropriate trusting relationship with a patient yet pressure to “produce” can put unrealistic and unfair expectations on clinicians.

Engagement. When was the last time any of the staff actually listened and responded face to face with a group of dentists and their teams about what the future has planned for them? The current (Corporate) Strategy is so full of “corporate speak” that any message is hidden behind paragraphs like this one, “Key to fulfilling our statutory responsibilities is ensuring that our resources are allocated to reflect our priorities and that opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations are taken promptly. Much has been achieved in this respect, but there is more to do and we are actively pursuing further opportunities.”

Humility. Dr Moyes could learn a lesson or two from the Chief Dental Officers who put themselves in the (metaphorical) firing line at conferences and speak… and appear to listen. They have learned from the mistakes of predecessors, the GDC shows no such humility. This aspect is damning.

Leadership. The morale of many dentists, especially young dentists, in the UK is at an all time low, there is clearly a disconnect between what their expectations are and what the reality is that they encounter. The only body that has control over both education and daily dentistry wherever it is practiced is the GDC.

Brexit and more. It is clear from the cases that come before the GDC that many overseas graduates are not prepared for practice in the UK. The responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of the GDC. Or are they under such pressure to keep the dental lights on and the dental queues at bay that things could are fudged?

Blame game. Reports of meetings from official and unofficial sources say that the usual excuse for any lack of action is “it would take government intervention” which translates into “we don’t have the will”.

It is clear that large, unrealistic contracts, [like the famous cross infection control case in Nottingham] have been awarded, the profession has known that, why hasn’t the GDC taken steps to ensure things are running well and the mistakes remedied? Or would that be the clip-boarding, tick-boxers of the CQC’s responsibility?

Finally. I challenge you to grasp one simple nettle, just the one, only one. Allow registrants to pay their registration fees monthly by direct debit. It is one element that typifies the lack of listening, the lack of will to take action and the inability to appear to be anything other than a Dickensian schoolmaster who knows only wrong in others.

Happy New Year to you and to all who pay the fees that you collect, spend and keep in reserve. I wish you all the very best for 2020.

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Keith Hayes

Is the GDC in the 1920's or 20...

Alun has hit the nail squarely on the head.
Friday, 10 January 2020 12:56
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If the BDA Did Not Exist?

bda-logo-blue-on-trans If the BDA did not exist . . . . .

If the BDA did not exist…It would need to be invented.

I was encouraged as a student not only to join the BDA but also to join in. I have served in several roles at Section and Branch and, even as a non-clinician, I still read and enjoy the BDJ.

I remain, an advocate and a critic of the BDA. I am often reminded of the “What have the Romans ever done” sketch from The Life of Brian when dentists ask, “What has the BDA ever done for me?”. They often continue, “Why don’t they…?” the questions being the old chestnuts, “Sort out the GDC/CQC/Department of Health” or “get some action like the BMA does”. The same individuals usually disappear when you ask them to do something for themselves or others.

So what is the BDA’s role, how could it change and what benefit would that bring? The cliche goes, “You wouldn’t want to start from here”, but here is where we are.

The BDA’s mission statement is: “to promote the interests of members, advance the science, arts and ethics of dentistry and improve the nation’s oral health.”

Let’s accept that and start there.

A new organisation is a non-starter, it has been tried with little success, why reinvent the wheel? It could be a broader church, D stands for Dental not Dentist. Many successful sections actively welcome all team members to their meetings, we work in the same places and, if we want to truly embrace team working, why not?

An individual’s perception is their reality. The BDA is composed largely of people who work in general practice and, rightly or wrongly, they see the BDA through the lens of their silo. Their interests are different from one working in the community, academia or the hospital services. The main challenge is making sure that you are profitable, dentists like all small business owners run the risk of bankruptcy and ruin if they don’t get their maths right. Many practices run on very small margins of profitably, are undercapitalised and work from hand to mouth. More like corner shops than other professional businesses.

For many this has worsened since the imposition of the 2006 contract for which I most definitely do not blame the BDA. The then CDO did a whitewash job and the contract is deeply flawed, underfunded and bad for everyone.

Dentistry is a very stressful occupation. It can be a lonely place; being a medical professional has pressures upon it, having to make immediate decisions with patients that are awake and where you have finite time to complete procedures produces even more pressure.

Being the owner and main producer of a small business is lonely too. Many dentists are poor leaders and have problems separating management from leadership.

The stress of working under the NHS system plus an aggressive GDC is showing itself in rising numbers becoming burnt out and dissatisfied with their lot. In my role as a business consultant I meet many people at their wits end, not knowing which way to turn.

The BDA should be far more active in encouraging dentists to move away from a reliance on the NHS. In the past many elected representatives choose to be reliant on the NHS, have businesses that cope with the system and are so close to retirement they do not want to make changes. Change is happening there at last.


Through the sections and branches the BDA is responsible for large amounts of CPD provision yet there seems to be little cross communication. Some sections shine like beacons, others hardly flicker. Newer CPD providers have adopted different ways to be more attractive to a changing audience and the BDA has been slow to embrace the change.

One of the advantages of local face to face meetings is the provision of “fellowship”. Traditionally the opportunity to share experiences in a non-confrontational way with senior and junior colleagues provides a great way to let off steam, to unwind to share and gain support.

The annual conference was an excellent source of CPD and a hub around which the Dental World rotated, yet latterly struggled for an identity and was eventually subsumed by The Dentistry Show. I know that decision was hard to make and to take.


The BDA has clearly listened to criticism and there is far more comment and reaction about dentistry in the news. We also see and hear about disagreements, the profession has a mouthpiece with an opinion.

The press office needs to be ahead of the game more often and on more topics. For this to work there needs to be more dentists willing to stand up and speak up locally.


I would like the BDA to take a long hard look at what the scenery of UK dentistry should look like in a decade’s time, to examine other systems and drive change. The only opportunity we have of being ahead of repeated government intervention is by inventing our own future. What will things be like under headings of personnel, science, economics and social? How will that be reflected in the BDA’s advice to members? What decisions do practices and individuals need to take now for the world of 2030 and beyond?


Some years ago I had to explain to a member that as section secretary I had little or no way of making direct representation, and he would have to approach the LDC or his GDSC rep. His reply, “You’re the “face" of my Trades Union, I have no idea who the other people are, they never come to our meetings and the LDC people are all 100% NHS why can’t you do something?” I felt useless.

The route of feedback from practices to “HQ” remains poor, the communication needs to be improved and to be seen to be improved. Members don’t know who their representatives are or what they do. Clarity is required.


Dentists - if you want someone to represent you then get off your backside, find them, tell them exactly what you want and demand feedback, otherwise there is a large chance that you won’t get it! Don’t ask what your BDA can do for you, ask what you can do for your profession.

BDA - make it easier to contact representatives. Ensure your offer is of interest and relevance to all members. Keep the messages simpler, don’t presume everyone knows everything, continue the website improvement and keep reinventing yourself.

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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd, 2019

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The problems with the Silo existence

The problems with the Silo existence

Dentistry is tough, I have written that phrase as an opening to several pieces in the past. Things haven’t got any easier, in fact quite the opposite. There is a crisis of confidence in many young, and not so young, dentists.

Continue reading
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Alice: Further down the rabbit hole

FUTURE-VISION See the future . . .

April 1st 2035. On her 40th birthday Alice was taking stock of her career and professional life. Her initial dislike of working as a dentist for GleamDent had mellowed, she was still there, and life was good. The dental arm of a European health corporate had treated her well and she had responded by being a good employee. Her early days of ersatz self-employment had been swept away in John McDonnell’s first coalition budget.

Alice gazes through the keyhole

The job had privileges including free health care, crèche and kindergarten facilities at work for her two children and six weeks paid holiday a year. In addition the profit sharing scheme allowed all employees to purchase shares in the company and provided bonuses related to personal performance and length of service.

The deep economic depression in the wake of the exit from the EU had a profound effect. Many universities failed financially and tertiary education was re-structured. Vocational degrees were reimagined and medicine, veterinary science and dentistry became graduate entry, usually via the new modular medical science degree.

Teaching in dentistry took place through an apprentice like system at one of the four English dental schools each of which was associated with a corporate body. Students, or dental cadets, were taught theory “in block” and practiced in outreach clinics. The cadets received their education, accommodation and a stipend in return for their commitment to the career structure for 10 years after graduation.

Experiments with on-line delivery of all teaching at undergrad and postgrad levels had failed when it was seen that isolation and lack of personal contact contributed to mental health problems. Psychometric assessments became as important as practical evaluations before prospective students were admitted to the course.

The financial crash led to the creation of a new National Health Care system, run mostly by large groups and funded by clear and compulsory insurance cover. All practices were effectively privatised and during the last decade the, quaint, old style of practice based in converted houses had nearly disappeared. They were replaced either by stand alone new builds in office blocks or, more often, in “Hurley centres” alongside medical colleagues with the onus fixed on “putting the mouth back in the body”.

Some of Alice’s friends were exceptions. These “Artisan Dentists” had solitary practices where they worked with only a nurse and some even did their own laboratory work. Alice herself had relied on digital technology for all her restorative work for a dozen years.

These Artisan outliers were not able to sign up to any of the main health insurers and depended upon on direct payments from patients. Like many of her colleagues Alice had been suspicious of their approach but after spending a few hours with an old friend had found the personal attitude interesting but not attractive.

Every GleamDent treatment pod was well equipped. Magnification was standard, the lighting excellent and state of the art patient distraction systems, long proved to be essential to obtain relaxation and co-operation were a huge improvement on local anaesthetic alone.

In the early days Alice, like many others, was uncomfortable to find that direct feeds from her loupes, in-surgery cameras and monitors meant that all clinical and non-clinical procedures were recorded. Feedback from the sensors measuring Blood Pressure, pulse and cranial activity, of dentist and patient was also monitored. It was easier to defend the increasingly rare allegations of poor treatment, and operator quality could be assessed and constructive feedback given. Plus, reflective practice in such a practical subject was easier when one could see one’s own work and reactions.

Since 2030 much of the adversarial legal system had been taken over by Artificial Intelligence, this removed the need for involvement of the discredited General Dental Council.

Vaccinations against caries and aggressive forms of periodontal disease plus genetic intervention had resulted in 95% of people being bacterial disease free, with ideal jaw and teeth relationships.

However there was a TSL (tooth surface loss) “epidemic”, due to people living on a 90% plant and fruit based diet. The consequences were that many people needed extensive reconstructions during their lifetime. These were mostly performed, like implants and orthodontics, by dental robots, using computerised treatment plans and 4-D printer generated restorations.

Alice found that these cases fulfilling and challenging. The rest of the time she spent supervising via the in-surgery monitors and mentoring junior colleagues whether they are therapists, dentists or students.

Would she choose dentistry for her children? She already had, thus earning herself a share of the GleamDent finder’s bursary.


[See a blog post about Alice, earlier in her career]


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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd, 2019

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Who do you trust? Who can you trust?


One of the main tenets of Professor Onora O’Neill’s arguments around the theme of trust is that we must aim to have more trust in the trustworthy but not in the untrustworthy. She says, “I aim positively to try not to trust the untrustworthy.”

Which brings around the questions. Who can you trust? Who do you trust? And then by extension, Who can trust you? Who does trust you?

All of us exist in different circles. At the centre is the Circle of Control. Sometimes when I talk to dentists and their teams they say that they feel they have little control over their lives, I can understand those feelings but they are not correct. We have control on where our focus is from moment to moment. We choose and can control our reactions to events and to others. We control where and how we spend our time and energy. We control how we turn up every day. We also control how trustworthy we are.

circles The next circle is The Circle of Influence. In here are the things that concern you and that you are able to Influence. When we look at this closely many of the things that cause us concern are beyond our control and influence.

Finally the outer circle is the Circle of Concern. In here lie all the things that concern you in your work and life, including health, family, finances, the general economy and so on. Everything inside the circle matters to you, everything outside the circle is of no concern to you.

The lesson around the circles is to “Focus on what you can control and don’t waste energy on the things that you cannot.” To take a topical theme, it is very unlikely that any of us can control the outcome of the UK’s proposed Brexit deal - yet many are losing sleep, getting anxious, losing friends and letting it dominate their thinking.

To return to trust. Dentists often say they feel they have lost trust in successive governments, in the GDC and, increasingly, their colleagues. They will often give me evidence of things that have happened where their trust has been “betrayed” by an associate, a principal or an employee. When a patient makes a complaint we feel our trust has been betrayed in some shape or form and it hurts, of course it does.

Often when we analyse the situation we find that the relationship had not been founded on trust, that there was not complete transparency between the parties. In the past when deference was given to professionals there occurred “blind trust” which now, quite rightly, plays little role in our lives.

Unfortunately too many of our relationships have to be with the slab like nature of organisations, where trust is replaced by unintelligent accountability. This is based on managerial concepts of controlling performance by setting targets for individuals and institutions. Success, or not, is measured by whether targets are attained.

For the majority of dental team members, gaining trust with patients and each other is built in gradual stages. The speed depends upon the individuals involved. Bud Ham described the stages involved as a five-step process, Acquaintance, Rapport, Mutual Acceptance, Mutual Respect and Intimacy. The requirements for each stage are “Others’ Conscious Attention, “Friendliness”, “Shared History”, “Disclosed Beliefs” but for the final stage we need to take the risk of sharing “Secrets”.

Most teaching on good communication is “sales based” and stops at “Rapport”. I think it’s only just starting and would suggest that if our relationships are to be trustworthy they must, as Bud says, get closer to the Risk of Intimacy; emotional, mental or spiritual intimacy.

To return to Trust and to wrap things up.

  • If we want to be able to trust we must ourselves be trustworthy.
  • In order to be trustworthy we must acknowledge what we can control in our lives and focus as much on that as possible.
  • Identify those organisations and individuals who are untrustworthy as early as possible in your relationship and do not waste time and energy relying upon them.
  • The better you know someone the greater the trust between you and the less the risk of disappointment.
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© Alun Rees, 2019

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It's Dreadfully Confusing

jigsaw_472 It's Dreadfully Confusing

I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the Queen said. "Two pence a week, and jam every other day."

"Well, I don't want any to-day, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day."

"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing!


Poor Alice, life had seemed much simpler when she graduated BDS, two years ago. A sunny summer passed living on her parents’ credit card visiting her friends from university. But the confusion had already started.

Alice was qualified and fully GDC registered so could work privately. She must wait 8 weeks until September to start her FD job post. She kept hearing about the shortage of NHS dentists but this was the “system”.

Her FD year went well, learning new skills with a supportive trainer, and then she failed to get either of the associate jobs in “mixed” practices for which she had been interviewed. The successful candidates were people who called themselves “Cosmetic Dentists” with portfolios of perfect photographs of composite restorations and who boasted about how many Invisalign cases they had done.

Soon, she was back living at home to start her first “proper” job; working in Mr Jackson’s practice where she had done her work experience from school. Mr Jackson didn’t own it any more and it wasn’t quite the same, being part of the “GleamDent” chain where everyone wore identical, shapeless “scrubs”. It didn’t seem as friendly as she remembered.

Her interview had been OK, although they didn’t seem keen on her charity work and hobbies nor did she didn’t get to meet any of the other dentists. The practice manager, “Queenie” as everyone called her, seemed a bit brusque and insisted on her signing her employee contract before she left the building, although she was sure they had told her on her FD course days that wasn’t best practice. Queenie said that was what GleamDent did and it was a standard “BDA” contract, so it should be OK.

The confusion continued. When she was eventually paid, four weeks after the month end, she hadn’t earned as much as expected. There were so many deductions! Laboratory work she understood, but laundry bills for those awful scrubs? She had made a couple of private crowns for an old friend using a different impression material, so she must pay 100% of the material cost as it was a “non-standard” GleamDent product. Hadn’t she read the employee manual listing what was acceptable and what was optional? Well no, she hadn’t because it wasn’t available.

CPD provision and certification was available in-house, at a cost. £100 for someone from GleamDent HQ to recite Prof Welbury’s child safeguarding manual, seemed a bit steep.

She did at least have a GleamDent online mentor and coach. He worked at a practice 150 miles away had seemed encouraging when they first met via Skype, “the first five years are the worst!” he had joked, she presumed it was a joke. She hadn’t been told that she would have to pay him too.

Alice had been a diligent student and enjoyed statistics but “practice KPIs” were a mystery all of their own. She received daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly reports, which usually arrived in the early hours of the morning. Queenie expected her to have read and understood them by the time of the next team morning huddle, or “The naming and shaming session” as the other associates called it.

Whatever the KPIs said, Alice felt as if nothing could improve. She couldn’t grasp why patient’s late cancellation of hygienist appointments could be her fault or why she was then expected to make a contribution to the hygienist’s wages.

Twelve months later and the promised “loads of private patients” was rarely more than a trickle of challenging full denture cases. Alice was the last to arrive and got the highest needs NHS patients, she had trouble making her UDA targets and was now facing subsidising any practice clawback. “Your problem”, said Queenie during one of her little “pep-talks,” is that you care too much. You spend too long with the patients; the chatting and consent should be done by “TCO Jackie”, the treatment coordinator. “You must learn how to become a more effective operator, you’ll never be a success unless you cut corners. How do you think Dr King, (the founder of GleamDent) made his money?”

Alice remembered a line from her FD Information Handbook, warning about social media blurring the boundary between public and professional life. She hadn’t realised that there could be a similar blurring between ethical and less ethical behaviour.

It all seemed dreadfully confusing.

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© Alun Rees, 2019

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Dentistry’s Existential Crisis

crisis-in-progress-sign Beware - Crisis in Progress.

The phrase “Existential Crisis” has been used a lot recently. In an individual it is defined as, “a moment at which one questions if their life has meaning, purpose or value”. Often it occurs at a point of depression or negative speculations on ones purpose in life.

Extrapolate that to a country and you have UK 2019 where political leaders in both government and opposition seem to have lost their perspective on many things, not least the word beginning “Brex”.

Dentistry like much of healthcare, is no exception. There are many dentists examining themselves and their motivations, trying to make sense of the direction they thought they were heading and the reality. Are these individuals really symptoms of a far bigger crisis or crossroads within the profession? And is it limited to the UK?

Examine the traditional career pathway. Dental student, FD, perhaps a little hospital work then an associateship or three, find a place that suits you and either buy into a partnership or buy a practice of your own. The financial pressures of ownership led to a focus on the reality of running a tight ship making the years of relative sufficiency and comfortable associateship feel like a dream. It all seems so simple.

With hindsight 2006 was a far greater watershed than we could have imagined. Fixed contracts have brought associates to the verge of employed status. Scarcity of contracts has led to massive inflation of their value. Most agree that the contract remains bad for everyone involved excepting those who hold the purse strings and make the rules. Yet there are no shortage of takers.

Looking at it from more than a decade and a half, the one outstanding thing was the independence of practitioners. Even those who chose to be “career” associates (including those who worked part time with family commitments) had stability with their own contracts and patients. The DoH write the rules, they wanted control and they have taken it.

Add to the mix the onus on universities to produce graduates to work in the NHS as opposed to being safe to provide care under any arrangement. The change in emphasis appears small, but is significant.

The fall out from Shipman has brought about a broad brush approach to the need for compliance, adding yet another contribution to the erosion of morale. The Care Quality Commission was never suited to Dentistry and remains a poor fit. Yet the tank trundles ever onward, distracting and crushing dental teams under its tracks.

There has been a growth of larger practices and the pervasive influence of corporates, some, not all, with a culture of command and control management which puts the investors’ interests above those of the patients and workforce. New graduates, taken in by piecrust promises and unable to find other posts are discovering that there is no line on a spreadsheet for empathy and care.

The commoditisation of orthodontics, led by the Align corporation, far from increasing individual skills is leading to an A.I. world. How many  steps away are we from photographs taken with an app on an iPhone transmitted to a central hub for diagnosis, treatment planning and subsequent appliance delivery direct to the consumer. Why bother with those pesky dentists with their expectations and sense of entitlement?

Diagnosis of disease will be done more accurately using computers, treatments that can’t be carried out by robots will be performed by Dental Therapists. The headlong rush to being “Dental Beauticians” opens the market to many. Just because something has always been safe and controlled doesn’t mean that it will remain so. Remember coal, steel and newspaper typesetters.

In their book “The Future of the Professions”, Richard and Daniel Susskind predict the decline of today's professions and introduces the people and systems that will replace them. In an internet-enhanced society, we will neither need nor want doctors, teachers, accountants, architects, the clergy, consultants, lawyers, and many others, to work as they did in the 20th century.

The authors challenge the 'grand bargain' - the arrangement that grants various monopolies to today's professionals. They argue that our current professions are antiquated, opaque and no longer affordable, and that the expertise of their best is enjoyed only by a few.

Perhaps we should all embrace Dentistry’s Existential Crisis and plan for our futures.

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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd, 2019

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What would you suggest? asks Alun Rees


A couple of months ago I stopped part way through a presentation and asked what words of advice the audience of dentists, of varying ages and experiences with the vast majority over 40, would give to a group of 25 - 30 year old dental graduates.

I have been mulling over their responses and the subsequent post-meeting discussions since then and sharing them whenever I can.

“Emigrate” was the first shout out. When I asked why, there were a number of answers, which set the tone for the mix of the realistic, but slightly miserabilist attitude, which can tend to dominate groups of dentists. “Because this country doesn’t appreciate dentistry, nobody values what we do, it’s better elsewhere”. This attitude harks back to my last post for GDPUK, “Nobody loves us every body hates us” and I believe that dentists should come to terms with the fact that people do like their dentist but don’t enjoy dentistry.

Next response was, “Say No”. On exploration this was the heartfelt plea to be left alone to do the very best for their patients. Constant interference from government bodies and the imposition of repeated layers of untried, untested and mostly unnecessary compliance have done little or nothing to improve the condition of patient care.

There was a feeling that dentistry had been caught napping about many of the changes and that the British Dental Association could and should have been more proactive in defence. (This was not a BDA section meeting). I teased this out a little more and the mood was that the BDA should lead, rather than react to change, that they should be the early adopters instead of worrying about the laggards.

“Go Part Time,” said an associate who shared how she had just reduced her working week to 3 days. My suggestion that all dentists especially practice owners should work no more than 4 clinical days a week (preferably less) was greeted with a certain amount of suspicion - no change there. Often I find that many dentists have such a “high maintenance” lifestyle because they can borrow highly that when they do want to consider reducing their hours they are so wedded to a treadmill of their own construction that it is hard to slow down.

The words of advice started to get more measured then and the group were clearly focussing on the target group rather than their own discomfort.

“Continue with Post Graduate training.” The awareness that in many areas therapists are replacing associates, who had not developed their skills and training beyond BDS, is leading to a growing realisation that you must bring something unique or special to the party. I do meet associates who cannot see the wall ahead of them and still believe that a few local meetings a year is all they need to stay current.

“Choose the right practice.” Said with some emotion by one dentist who shared some familiar stories of promises made and not kept by several principals with whom he had worked. The nods in the room showed that was a common experience.

“Get the balance right.” Bearing in mind that the subject of my talk was the causes and signs of burnout it was no wonder that this was in delegates’ minds. Unfortunately for too many it seems that balance is something that has to be restored in their lives after a problem or two rather than being established as a matter of course.

“Good financial advice, ASAP” This contributor was keen to encourage all young dentists to start planning for their financial future sooner rather than later. Their experience it turned out had been of needing to stay working rather than wanting to because they were not going to be as well off in retirement as they had believed.

“Look after yourself, physically and mentally.” In every group where I speak, especially about the topic mentioned above, someone comes and speaks to me at the end and shares their experiences of breakdown in some shape or form. This was no exception, except there were three of them who had not taken care and suffered from the consequences. The sometimes macho culture of (UK) dentistry can certainly take its toll with life altering consequences in some cases.

“Don’t be afraid to leave.” The world of dentistry is split into two groups it appears, those who have no idea of the value that they can to deliver to the world away from the dental chair and those who have walked away and been successful. The former camp may have self-esteem problems in my opinion and possibly never thought themselves good at dentistry in the first place. It could be that having aimed at dentistry from the age of 15 or 16 they can’t comprehend a life away from it.

“Choose your company wisely.” I thought this was particularly good advice, unfortunately the Internet is full of bad stories about “things” that have happened to dentists. If you are so inclined you can spend hours wallowing in websites, Facebook groups and bulletin boards where individuals try to out do each other with either misery or boasting about their success. All these of course are exaggerated and do little or nothing to help. If the old adage, “you are the sum of the people you spend your time with” is true, and I believe it is, then be selective and stay away from doom mongers and atmosphere hoovers who celebrate misery.

Finally came this gem:

“Don’t listen to old gits who tell you how good things used to be.” This was the view of the people who were really enjoying their lives in dentistry, who had control of their own destiny and could see opportunities in the future. They knew that there have been, and would, always be challenges and that was the way that life is. The “old gits” are the same people who moaned about the 1990 contract, the move to wearing gloves, and changing burs between patients. They were probably the ones who in their day missed vulcanite (look it up), daily “gas” sessions and the inevitability of full dentures. They were the gang who were suspicious that dental hygienists would take the bread from their mouth, believed that the relaxation of advertising was the death knell of professionalism and said that they would never get rid of their upright chairs.

There’s a lot of wisdom in dental audiences, it’s a shame it isn’t shared in dental schools.

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Recent Comments
Paul Hellyer

Shame about your last sentence

Having spent 6 years teaching undergrads in an outreach centre recently and speaking and teaching and publishing about stress in d... Read More
Thursday, 31 May 2018 12:11
Alun Rees

Thanks Paul

Thanks for taking the time to comment Paul. I frequently deal with the fallout from the consequences of stress in dentistry, my pr... Read More
Thursday, 31 May 2018 13:23
Paul Hellyer

Old gits

I think one thing which would help would be more of the old gits being willing to Mentor new graduates, after DF1. One of the com... Read More
Thursday, 31 May 2018 14:19
6632 Hits

Fake News and La La Land

Fake News and La La Land

“The NHS is safe in our hands. The elderly are safe in our hands. The sick are safe in our hands. The surgeons are safe in our hands. The nurses are safe in our hands. The doctors are safe in our hands. The dentists are safe in our hands.”

Margaret Thatcher, 1983.

I remember thinking that when Margaret Thatcher said those words, written by speechwriter John O’Sullivan, that it was thoughtful of a politician to mention dentists. Thoughtful and unbelievable.

The use of the ‘Epistrophe’, the rhetorical tool of repeating of a word or phrase at the end of each sentence was used to echo Churchill’s ‘Anaphora’ of “We shall fight them etc”. Rhetoric has given way to the sound bite of, “The NHS is safe in our hands” which has always been Fake News or as my schoolteachers would have called it “Lies”.

The majority of politicians when given the opportunity have repeated the “safe hands” mantra. I wondered if it was a stock phrase they taught you at MP elocution school along with, “Hard working families” and "Education, education, education”.

“La-La Land” has been defined as “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life”. Few dentist fall into that category but I believe there are many who may hope: “To think that things that are completely impossible might happen, rather than understanding how things really are”.

A definition of madness is to do the same thing again and again hoping for a different result. Since Mrs Thatcher, governments of every hue have sought to undermine the dental profession by repeated assaults and insults both specific and general.

In the UK, like the majority of countries, most routine dentistry is provided by small businesses with the owners taking the financial risk of failure but also any profits from success. For years there was a 3-way set up, patient, dentist and NHS; the first paid the second the fees that were decided by the third that also set the rules. There was the possibility of competition, expansion and genuine entrepreneurship within the system. 2006 changed much of that.

The 2015 saw the Tories return to government free of their Lib-Dem coalition partners with talk of SMEs (Small and medium sized enterprises) being the “lifeblood of the economy”. Promises were made of more investment in super-fast broadband for entrepreneurs, a review of benefits for the self-employed and a trebling for the start-up loans programme.

A commitment was made by Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) to, “slash red tape” and to change employment laws to enable greater competition. One promise that was kept was for referendum, an excuse for any and all procrastination for the foreseeable future.

Cameron not only promised “the NHS is safe in our hands”, but also, “there will be no top down re-organisation” before letting Andrew Lansley set about things like a drunken bull manoeuvring a JCB in china shop.

The (genuine) news that the Inland Revenue’s “Make Tax Digital” (MTD) plans will mean all self employed individuals and small businesses having to make some form of tax return and payment on a quarterly basis hardly bodes well for dentists looking to reduce their costs. It will involve far more time and increase accountancy fees.

Changes in Business Rates will have a profound effect on many businesses, with London rates set to rise by 35.5% over the next two years. The fact is these changes should be made every 5 years but were delayed from 2015 so as not to interfere (i.e. prove unpopular) with the general election is further evidence of interference with the truth. Mrs May quickly promised help, then admitted there is no more money.

For years the GDC said that they could not make any changes and an act of parliament was required. This happened in late 2015, I am not sure that anyone has felt the benefits of “a more streamlined complaints system with timelier decisions, and with appropriate safeguards for both patients and dental professionals”.

Finally on the Fake News front that (new) NHS contract. As the BDA says, “The 2006 dental contract is not fit for purpose. It rewards dentists for hitting government targets for treatment and repair, not for improving their patients’ oral health.

In the 2010 general election, the opposition Conservative manifesto pledged a new dentistry contract. The coalition agreement – struck between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – pledged the contract would be introduced by the next election, in 2015.

In August 2016 Lord Prior said, “I believe that we expect the new contract to be introduced fully in 2018.”

And lawyer, John Grant ,wrote after yet another debate on the proposed contract.

At some point there will be a new contract, but at present no one knows at all what this is going to look like.

When it does come in the government – no matter which party is in power – is going to want an awful lot more from dentists and in return is going to pay significantly less.”

If you think things can only get better (see 1997) then you are not only living in La-La Land but still expecting it to win the Best Film Oscar.

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Body Odour in the Workplace

Body Odour in the Workplace

If your best friend won’t tell you what do you do? A different problem.

“I’m feeling a little bit under the weather”. Another vague absence. Karen was good team member, a hard worker and, with the exception of a couple of days a month, punctual and reliable. The principal and the practice manager didn’t know what to do; they had tried the usual approaches mixing concern and compassion but had got nowhere.

A recent survey of 10,000 office workers has found that most one-off sickies are due to hangovers with “just hating the job” coming in second. Neither was the case with Karen, she never drank and clearly enjoyed her career.

“Alun, I wonder could you do her appraisal when you’re next visiting the practice? We’re struggling with what to do about her absences.” Sometimes a different face, voice or ear will bring results. This time was a success and I was able to get to the heart of Karen’s problem. I found her to be a sensitive soul, caring and concerned but in the horns of a dilemma.

The practice consisted of six surgeries with one principal, four full and part-time associates and part-time three hygienists. They operated an egalitarian system where, in order to ensure their were no opportunities for favourites or cliques, the nurses moved around on what appeared to be a fairly complicated rota. This way they worked with associates, principal, hygienists, did their turn in the LDU and had a share of being a “float”.

It turned out that Karen’s absences always coincided with her being due to work with Pam, one of the associates. Pam was experienced, had worked in a variety of practices, hospital departments and had also had a spell working in the community. It was acknowledged she could be a bit brusque with both patients and nurses, but her work was good, she ran to time and grossed well. She was recently divorced, had no children and lived alone.

I managed to get to the heart of things when I met Karen. She was under the impression that the visiting Business Coach was there to see her for some sort of disciplinary matter but I soon disabused her of this and she relaxed. We proceeded with her appraisal, which went well, and having gained her confidence I introduced the matter of her absences. She eventually shared with me the fact that Pam suffered from what used to be labelled as “B.O.” - in other words she was smelly. All the nurses were aware of it but for some reason Karen was particularly sensitive and had needed to run to the toilet to be sick the last time that she worked with Pam. She had now got herself into a real state in case the same thing happened again. She had started to believe that she was the one with the problem and hence the absences.

When I asked the principal and the practice manager they both admitted to having noticed Pam’s odour but had presumed that it was a rare event. Bromhidrosis or body odour, is a common phenomenon in post-pubertal individuals and can rarely become pathologic if it interferes with the life of the individual concerned.

So far, so good we had a diagnosis, but how to treat the problem?

As I was there, and Pam was there that day, it was felt that there would be less of an embarrassment if I were to broach the subject with her. Fine I thought, the client is always right and I have to earn my corn. It wasn’t something that I had done before and I am all for new experiences, if it went badly then I would get the blame and could walk away for another three months.

We met after work and I gave myself 15 minutes to achieve the objectives which were, to point out to Pam as subtly but effectively that there had been comments, to find out if she realised that there might be a problem and then work out a way to deal with it.

Her reaction, thankfully, was not one of denial or to attempt to blame someone for “sneaking” on her. She was horrified and visibly upset. It turned out that she had rather “let herself go” (her words) following her divorce and some days it was all she could do to drag herself out of bed and often didn’t get round to showering or bathing. She wore a tunic at work but wore it over clothes and we agreed that a change to scrubs might help. Most, but not all, of the clinicians wore them and as they were laundered by the practice it removed any home washing. An easier conversation than I feared with, hopefully, a positive result.

When I checked in with the practice owner during our regular coaching calls Pam had obviously had a bit of an awakening. The odour problem had gone and she had taken ownership of the problem by taking the time to ask each nurse at the start of her next session with them to please tell her if there was any recurrence.

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CDO shows her true colours

CDO shows her true colours

I wrote a piece for Dentistry magazine earlier this year about the new Chief Dental Officer who at the time was busy on a “fact-finding” tour of her new territory. Sara Hurley’s tour was without doubt planned as a charm offensive, featuring smiling photographs with some of the movers and shakers of British dentistry. When she made an appearance at the BDA conference in Manchester her ad-lib question and answer session on the BDA stand was very successful and she came across as personable, reasonable and eloquent. “Good”, I thought, “here’s someone who wants to make friends”.

After more than a decade of her successor, Barry Cockcroft, who could not be described as any one of personable, reasonable or eloquent she seemed a breath of fresh air. But, let’s face it, the bar wasn’t set very high.

In my article I reminisced about CDOs I had encountered, I would not claim to have known any of them. I encountered Brian Mouatt when I was doing the MGDS pre-exam course just after the Conservative government announced a new dental contract, which was intended to “sort out NHS dentistry for good”.

He gave a talk on the new contract and promised that he would answer our concerns when he had finished. However having completed his prepared address he muttered something about having a previous engagement and headed for the door, our angry comments and questions ringing in his ear.

I only knew Margaret Seward because she was married to my first boss, Professor Gordon Seward, she was in post for two years and presumably wasn’t able to leave much of a mark on things, people I have met who worked with her spoke highly of her.

The other CDO I met was of course the previously mentioned Dr Cockcroft who was the highly visible mouthpiece for the iniquitous UDA system and became the exception after a line of low profile CDOs.

In view of Dr Hurley’s ease with people and obviously understanding the need for good PR I was surprised to hear that the new CDO had been far too busy to answer questions on Channel 4 in the wake of their damning reports on UK dentistry. If an NHS dentist was similarly booked solid for 6 months it would be mismanagement.

There was something that kept nagging at me and that was the somewhat cynical conclusion we reached after Brian Mouatt’s sudden departure. The CDO is a civil servant and is there to do the government’s bidding. The current incumbent has spent her professional life in the services reaching a high rank, she knows all about chain of command and is used to taking orders.

Her announcement this week at an NHS Expo (whatever that may be) that, “Going to the dentist every six months is unnecessary,” as the Daily Telegraph reported it, only undermines the position of Dentistry.  The other statements attributed to her are more “austerity” fuelled DoH propaganda.

"You don't see your GP every six months so why would you see your dentist?” Dr Hurley said. Well, Sara that is because NHS medicine is an illness driven system that is reactive and gives only lip service to prevention.

“If you go to have your car MOT, and he says, come back in six months, do you blindly adhere to that advice?” Actually Sarah if I’m driving one and a half tons of complicated machinery that I want to be safe yes I do. What does the army do about recalling tanks for servicing at the correct intervals? I would suggest that if you do them “blindly” someone could find themselves being disciplined.

She was joined on the platform by Roy Lilley who described dentistry as  “a rich man’s hobby” as a regular reader of Mr Lilley I know him to be anti-medic, and by extension dentist, who thinks that every ill in medicine can be cured with a “cuppa builder’s and a hobnob”. He criticised improved surroundings for dentistry, perhaps a return to upright chairs, woodchip wallpaper and lino; with queues on the stairs for gas sessions - would this suit him?

It has taken dentistry half a century to get the message across that regular attenders have fewer problems, stay healthier and actually prefer the reassurance. The good practices already tailor their recalls to suit patients and have been doing it for decades. Your statement is irresponsible and only fuels any criticism and scepticism of dentistry. You knew that your words would make headlines and that you were undermining the hard won confidence that most general practitioners face. However as you have never been a GDP how can you possibly understand what that really means?

It would appear that after a year in post gaining the fragile confidence of dentists, the directive has come down to the CDO, “get rid of your camouflage tunic, put on your hard hat and Kevlar, come out into the open and start gunning down your colleagues. That’s what we pay you for, not popularity - oh and Sara don’t forget there may well be a gong in it for you”.

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What will happen to associates?

What will happen to associates?

Nils Bohr was a Danish hero who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. The national brewer, Carlsberg, built Bohr a house. The home was next door to the brewery and allegedly had a direct feed from it, he fathered six children thus providing an early inspiration for the Carlsberg “refreshing the parts” adverts.

He once said, “Prediction is very difficult especially when it’s about the future.” Difficult or not I’m going to look at the future for young dentists in (general) Dental Practice.

It would be wrong to stare into the crystal ball without a quick glance over my shoulder. A sage told me in 1988 that in the future in the UK, “There will be NHS clinics and Private Practices”. With hindsight I’m surprised it took so long to get to where we are now.

Post Brexit, one big hitter remaining in-post is the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. There is still no money. The UK doesn’t care what Europe thinks of it, I know, but sometimes you hear the truth. A medic on Irish radio this week said, “The Tories don't like the NHS and Jeremy Hunt is doing his best to dismantle the basic principles of it”. In dentistry many of those basic principles are long gone and the remaining ones are being eroded as we watch.

No more money for education either. University fees and associated living costs are on the rise. Without free movement across borders in the future, university incomes from overseas may fall and UK student fees must rise accordingly. Dentistry is one of the most expensive courses to run, why not make the fees reflect those costs? Dentistry may well become the domain of the privileged, whose parents can afford to subsidise their offspring or arrange the loans for them.

With the recent relaxation of University status perhaps “a large corporate” could create or take over one or more of the Dental Schools to provide cadetships. The armed services have done this for many years. Five undergraduate years in receipt of a bursary and the tuition fees paid. The opportunity for vacation work/internships getting experience of all sorts at flagship practices and the indoctrination / assimilation becomes complete. Post-qualification you commit to, say, 10 years of service or have to repay their investment.

It is possible with this model that corporate dentistry can provide the closest thing to a career structure in general practice, something that the NHS has failed to do and significantly prevented private practice from doing.

The status of NHS associates does not bear close examination. In England and Wales there are fixed targets. Countrywide, associates do not provide their own equipment, are not directly responsible for marketing, wages, materials and so on and by any stretch of the imagination cannot retain the privilege of being self employed for much longer.

A quick flick of the pen by someone senior at HMRC would convert the status of associates to salaried employees. This might be welcomed by many dentists, young and old, especially those who have responsibility for childcare or who have spouses or partners who are in reasonably rewarded jobs.

Time and attitudes have changed and full ownership or traditional partnerships aren’t for everyone. The baby boomers who qualified before compulsory VT/FD and are now the (predominantly) male/pale/stale retiring on the proceeds of the corporate cash which many once derided. They may well be the last of their species.

Many young dentists look at the price of practices, the bureaucracy and the day to day pressure of practice ownership and decide that is not for them. The NHS has evolved into “turn up, get your UDAs, keep your nose clean from the GDC & CQC and go home”. Sounds like a job to me - not a vocation. The millennials are, allegedly, not keen on being tied to one particular practice.

In 2015-16 the admission target, for English dental schools only, was 809, presuming a 10% drop out rate and excluding overseas students there will be another 700 new dentists joining the ranks of the profession year on year. Of these about two-thirds will be female. At present the profession’s mix is 50-50 but it’s a fact that women work less than men over the course of a career, men don’t have babies and predominantly childcare duties fall to mothers not fathers.

This trend started with medicine and has had a profound effect both in   general and hospital practice. Interestingly the sex-mix pendulum has swung back in some medical schools.

One reaction with medical GPs is the change in status in response to the difficulty in recruiting partners by expanding the number of salaried doctors.  The government sees this as easier to control and privatise. Those GPs in favour of becoming salaried has now reached nearly 30%, nowhere near a majority but significant numbers are beginning to think the unthinkable.

In my last piece for GDPUK I wrote, “Meanwhile many quiet, thoughtful young dentists are taking a long view and working at their skills.” They are realising that to escape the mire of the NHS demands a commitment to growing themselves and that the sacrifices don’t stop with a BDS. In fact the years of serious dedication are just starting.

So the future, NHS clinics run by a handful of large corporates with salaried dentists and therapists, and private practices where an M.Sc is the starting point for consideration.

Your choice.

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The Great Dental Bubble

The Great Dental Bubble

Once upon a time someone started to blow a bubble.

All Pixar films have a simple story structure which can be summed up as:

“…Once Upon a Time…

Every Day…

One Day…

Because of that…

Because of that…

Until Finally….”

So if Pixar did the story of recent Dentistry, here’s the movie storyline.

Once upon a time nearly every new dentist went and worked as an associate in General Dental Practice with an NHS contract.

Every day, 5 days a week, they worked for 8 hours and had an hour for lunch. Some of them were better than others and some were worse. Some were faster than others and some were slower. The faster they worked the more they earned. Every month encouragement came from the practice owners, “get your backside in the air and get your gross up”. Every dentist in every practice did the same thing - they repaired broken and diseased teeth. Some liked to spend half a day a week making dentures or braces or using a scalpel - but that was just a diversion from drill’n’fill.

At the end of the month the owner let the associates keep half of what they had earned. This was often a lot of money for a young, newly qualified person. Their friends from university who had studied medicine, accountancy and the law couldn’t understand how dentists could justify the amounts they earned when they were so young and inexperienced and were envious. Secretly many young (and old) dentists agreed, but they couldn’t bring themselves to suggest a change. These were the golden years, there was lots of disease, plenty of patients and the Prime Minister’s purse was bottomless. In fact there were too many patients so in some places people queued to have their teeth out or tried to do it themselves, or so the TV said.

One Day the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, an ex-lawyer, said, “This is not good enough, something must be done”, and he decided that market forces must be applied. But firstly he made the NHS the National Religion and everybody must be an acolyte, for to speak against the NHS was sacrilege. Then he applied the rule of supply and demand, so he opened up lots of new dental schools where intelligent young people could become noviciate monks and nuns of the NHS. Although the words “private” and “dentistry” were considered blasphemy “private” and “university” were compulsory so the novice dentists were made to pay for the privilege of half a decade of confrontation and humiliation. Saint Tony also sent messengers out to all corners of Europe welcoming dentists to England and Wales where the NHS was the envy of the world and the dental streets were paved with gold.

Next his Grand Vizier, HenHouse and his Lord High Chancellor, Broon, said that the purse was closed, there would be no more money, each dentist must make do with what they had last year and the year before that.

Because of that even the fastest of new dentists were not able to get their backsides in the air and the slow ones earned the same as the fast ones. The practice bosses saw that where there had been queues of patients there were now queues of new dentists who had to repay their loans and were competing to work in the NHS churches. Some of these bosses saw this as an opportunity and competed to see who could pay the least. Some were allowed to keep a quarter or a third of what they earned. In his retirement villa St Laurence de Lando looked down, smiled broadly and said, “I told you so”.

Because of that lots of young dentists said, “We must buy our own businesses. We shall become dental entrepreneurs, what ever that is.” So they hocked the family silver, mortgaged their future earnings and sold their soul to the NHS (praise be its name), and in the subsequent sales frenzy this let St Laurence’s contemporaries buy much bigger villas on golf courses than they had ever dreamed possible. “We are the bosses now” trumpeted the new owners, “we shall buy lots of practices and screw down those associates who were not clever dental entrepreneurs like us. Then we shall sell out at the top of the market and make a shedload of cash.”

Meanwhile many quiet, thoughtful young dentists took a long view and worked at their skills. They saw that in the long term the religion would be exposed for the sham that it was and patients would choose between private practices with personal service and Nash clinics where they chose a number and waited their turn for the announcement, “dental cubicle number thirteen please.”

Until finally, one day the bubble burst, NHS dentistry was handed over, lock stock and barrel, to Tesco and many churches became empty shells, a testament to a great failed experiment.



Image credit - Isabelle Acatauassú Alves Almeida  under CC licence - not modified.

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Recent Comments
Keith Hayes

What about the wicked Witch?

I like the fairy story Alun, but please can we have a happy ending where dental professionals are able to put patients first and s... Read More
Thursday, 09 June 2016 09:50
Alun Rees

What about the wicked Witch?

Well the witch is dead, but that doesn't mean the threat has gone. It's only a fairy story Keith - real life is not like that at... Read More
Thursday, 09 June 2016 10:25
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Yes Minister, No Dentistry

Yes Minister, No Dentistry

The new Minister was being briefed by the new Permanent secretary, Lady Arabella Sternchin.


“Good morning Minister.”

“Good morning Arabella - it is OK for me to call you Arabella I hope? “


“Quite acceptable Minister.”

“Good I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I heard that old Humphrey could be a stickler for protocol.”


“I never worked directly with him, Minister, so I was never more than ‘my dear girl’.”

“Well that’s all clear then. Now as we’re both new boys, what are we going to do to get rid of the dentists Arabella?”


“Ah yes, I have done some research.”

“Splendid. Burning the midnight oil what?”


“No Minister. Burning out interns. It seems that one your predecessors thought they had things sorted out a decade ago.”

“What was the intention?”


“Well they imposed a new contract that was so ridiculous, so half baked and so poor for all parties that no-one with any common sense would sign it.”

“What happened?”


“The dentists signed it. They ignored advice and signed in their droves. Now the doctors, as Mr Hunt is finding, love a fight, the BMA is a nasty opponent and of course people like doctors. We presumed that as it was so obvious the dentists would lose their clinical freedom and wouldn’t be able to do clever work they would say no and head for private practice. But no such luck.”

“That was 10 years ago though Arabella, haven’t we tried anything since?”


“We got this chap Cockcroft to tell everybody that everything was wonderful.”

“Oh yes I met him once - the shifty one who can’t look you in the eye?”


“That’s him. Well in spite of the fact that nobody ever believed a word he said, indeed quite the opposite, they all opted for to jam today instead of no bread tomorrow.”

“Didn’t we try anything else?”


“Yes we opted for ‘death by acronyms’, the civil servants’ foolproof fallback.”

“What did we use?”


“First there was something called HTM01 oh something, it was all to do with cross infection. We put it about that dental practices were death traps and full of all sorts of bugs. We backed it up with lecture tours by a couple of burned out bug counters and some research work by the manufacturers of some extraordinary things called washer disinfectors. They were really souped up dishwashers but had the lifespan of a mayfly. Did no end of good for our German chums who sold them and made the fang farriers pay for servicing. Fact finding trips to the Black Forest all round!”

“I remember that. What else?”


“Then we thought we would trial the CQC on them - totally inappropriate for their industry of course but it helped us prepare for the real targets, the GPs. We made them pay for our mistakes too - what a naive bunch these are.”

“Didn’t they smell a rat?”


“Sadly not at all, in fact they kept coming back for more. A bit like dental Oliver Twists, “give us more UDAs”, they said.” Then a stroke of genius, they sent Bill Moyes to the GDC.”

“What madman Moyes? He’s not still at large is he?”


“Oh yes indeed Minister and he’s on our side now.”

“So let me get this straight, the original plan was to freeze them out of the NHS, into the good old private sector. How would we placate the voters, you know the Daily Mail reading “we support the NHS” brigade? They vote for us you know.”


“Privatisation minister.”

“Shhhh! Keep your voice down. How?”


“You remember the Carlyle group?”

“What the chaps who sell guns and ammo? They’re so bad even the Yanks don’t like them. How did that work?”


“We arranged for lots of little practices to be bought by Carlyle.”

“Goodness that’s cunning - what did the dentists do?”


“Some of them especially those growing long in the tooth - if you’ll excuse the pun - hated these “corporates” with a vengeance, but they hated the CQC, GDC and so on even more.”

“That doesn’t sound too good.”


“Bear with me Minister.”

“Chance would be a fine thing.”


“Cheeky. It seemed that once these upright, responsible members of the profession saw the colour of Carlyle’s cash they couldn’t wait to trouser the money, roll over, mutter “what principles?" and head for the golf course to blow their lump sums on Rory McIlroy clubs and Audi estates”.

“Gosh - I wondered where old Keith the teeth went. He was my constituency’s BDA rep and a right royal pain in the posterior.

So where are we now?”


“It has proved such a success that the first thing on your desk - once we get rid of this Brexit thing of course - is to consider the idea that we let the Carlyle conglomerate have the whole dental, err, shooting match. It will stop us having to pretend to deal with that dreadful Armstrong man from the BDA, apparently everyone preferred Martin as he knew how to make a decent G&T but this fellow just drinks pints of real ale and keeps nipping out for fag breaks and, by the look of him, the odd pie or two.”

“Isn’t that a bit drastic?”


“Not at all if the Mancs can manage health care, then Dentistry is just nickel and dime stuff as the cousins would say.”

“Just like that?”


“Indeed, Brexit may be a fly in the ointment, however.”

“How so?”


“Keeping these dental sweat shops, sorry surgeries, manned depends upon foreigners who can’t find work in their own lands. At the moment they can get work here easier than our own graduates.”

“Is that fair?”


“What’s fair got to with it? When was a dentist ever fair with you?”

“Sorry Arabella, do continue.”


“Our graduates are so in debt, what with £45k of tuition fees and much the same in beer loans that they are starting to undercut Johnny dental foreigner.”

“Maggie would be proud.”


“Indeed Minister. But it doesn’t stop there. We have plans for the private dentists too.”

“What now?”


“The Dutch control the fees that these cruel b****** can charge so we plan to do that and also to introduce a compulsory insurance plan to match the fees. We started talking to Wesleyan and Simply Health a couple of years ago and they have been very active and are readying themselves.”

“Goodness you have been busy.”


“That’s just the start minister. Your next meeting this morning is with Nigel my colleague from education. We intend to liberate the dental schools from University control. It’s something that we have been working on for a decade - it was Blair who originally got the ball rolling.”

“You know Tony was a good man really, a shame he pretended to be a red and a bit too keen to press the button. But ethically one of us.”


“Instead of teaching the new dental apprentices in ivory towers they will go to urban silos or, as Peter Mandelson christened them, “outreach centres”. These will be run by Carlyle, using their new branding of “ToothSkool”, and the apprentices will learn on volunteer patients for the new three year course. The volunteers will get rewarded with beer vouchers and the children a sticky bun. We have no end of great people coming on board to sponsor these places. Coca-Cola, Tate & Lyle, Kraft Food, Tesco.”

“What fun….good lord Arabella there’s a seat in the Lords waiting for you if this works out.”


Yes Minister.



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Pressure - what pressure?

Pressure - what pressure?

The news that the BDA is putting together a Research Project Advisory Group supporting research into the mental health and wellbeing of UK dentists might be greeted with suspicion in some quarters. Not in this one, anything that can look seriously at the causes of frustration, despair and burnout in dentistry must be supported.

Several years ago my accountant, who was married to a dentist’s daughter and had a dozen or so dental clients said to me, “I don’t know how you guys do it. If I have a problem I can close the file, go for a walk round the block and come back to it later in the day. Or I can go down the corridor and talk it through with someone. If you have one it’s right in front of you, living, breathing and, possibly, bleeding. You’ve probably got two more sitting waiting outside as well.”

I remember spending ages formulating this statement when I wrote my first report for a client:

“I need to make a couple of points about Dental Practice ownership. Firstly it can be a solitary place; being a medical professional has pressures upon it, having to make immediate decisions with patients that are awake and where you have a finite time to complete procedures produces even more pressure. Being the owner and main producer of a small business is lonely too.

Next; dentists, in common with a lot of “solopreneurs”, are notoriously poor leaders; they have problems separating management from leadership. They have difficulty in keeping themselves in a position where they are able to make decisions about their businesses in a dispassionate way.”

Mike Wise had taught me that it was OK to repeat the same stock phrases in different treatment plans so, as this applied to most of the reports, I have written it again and again. Firstly composed nearly a decade ago, the pressures have not diminished, indeed quite the opposite.

I accept that many of those obligations are by no means unique to dentistry, everyone who makes a living has to do it in a finite time to turn a profit. Even the biggest movie star, musician or sportsman has deadlines to hit. We all have to please someone at sometime. Human nature says you are a special case and begrudge anyone else’s right to be treated as such.

Dentistry is unique. Of course, in some ways, the business model may be similar to others. The need for systems, HR, financial controls, time management and dedication can be found in many other walks of life.

There’s one big exception. Dental clinicians have the use of sharp instruments with the potential to cause pain and inflict lasting damage. This carries a huge responsibility. It’s this last point, a major cause of stress, that the bean counters don’t grasp - and how could they? You have to be there to know that peculiar feeling of dread before exploring a hot pulp, the uncertainty of trying a perfect veneer or the sinking despair of fracturing a root in a phobic patient with limited opening.

Too many dentists don’t share their experiences, their uncertainties and concerns. Across the country attendances at many courses and BDA section meetings are down. One reason for this is the intrusion of “higher powers” to make CPD yet another exercise in box ticking of having turned up and fed the time in the approved core subjects. By extension, non-core subjects are seen to be less important.

Another reason is the courses, lectures and seminars are accessible on-line so that you can be solitary and get information at a time that suits you.

Often dentists view each other as competitors and are suspicious of others’ motives. I was recently given two separate opinions, “there’s no point in going to our local meetings because they are dominated by 1) the willie-waving early adopters who boast and lie about what they are doing and earning or 2) the patched elbow brigade who only moan about the CQC, GDC, BDA and are hanging on for their pensions.” Take your choice.

What is missed is the sharing of experiences, of being part of a community with mutual support. There’s nothing better than finding out that someone has had an even worse day than you.

Without that where does the frustration go? A fast drive home? Difficult on this crowded island. A fast cycle home? Good. Via the gym? Now you’re talking. What is all too frequent is a stop at the off licence and an evening shared between TV, laptop, iPad, smart phone and paperwork. Or goodnights made to children on the phone after your last patient and before you get on with the next bout of compliance.

Some people grow an outer skin so that the day to day doesn’t get to them, but in many this carapace resists any change and when it finally cracks the result can be catastrophic. The consequences of the pressure are physical and mental ill health, and a poorer quality of life than might have expected. So perhaps those expectations should be tempered or better still there should be training in how to handle the pressures. That has to start at undergraduate level.

Resilience is a word that is often bandied about but not properly understood, applied or taught and I’ll continue with it next month.


Image credit - Kevin Dooley under CC licence - not modified.

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You don’t have to do this - letter to a wavering dentist.

You don’t have to do this - letter to a wavering dentist.

You don’t have to do this - a letter to a wavering dentist.

Is this really what you want to do? You don’t have to.

Many students have made their decisions to study dentistry at university in their mid-teens, an age when they are neither mature nor in possession of great insight.

Parents, family and teachers see dentistry as a well-remunerated, successful profession with a secure future. Well positioned on any socially acceptable list that makes it traditionally attractive to the children of immigrants. My mother, a migrant from Ireland was determined that both her children would have professions, her background, in nursing, favoured the medical. I became a dentist, my brother a doctor.

How many of us have the nerve to say that it’s not what they want? Many dentists are ill suited to a profession that makes extensive physical, mental and emotional demands on its members. I am not convinced that the undergraduate course prepares students for the rigours of general practice.

After 5 undergraduate years and now carrying a large student debt it takes a brave new graduate to dare admit to parents and family that they have studied the wrong subject. If you have a degree in humanities or pure sciences you are fortunate to be able to continue with your subject. Only with a “vocational” degree is the graduate able, and expected, to follow a career pathway.

Socially, turning away is akin to failing to show up at your own wedding. An individual might be secretly admired for admitting that they don’t feel the commitment needed for a happy marriage but it’s a brave dentist who says that they have done the wrong thing.

Turn things on their head, if you know in your heart of hearts that you are going to be unfulfilled and unhappy being a dentist isn’t it better to say so sooner rather than later? How many more miserable years can you tolerate? How much stress and heartache can you endure once you have admitted to yourself that you’re in the wrong place?

Far too many dentists have plodded on through degree, foundation training, associateship, partnership, marriage and children all carrying with them increasing financial pressures.

They thinking that this is the way that it has to be, that it will get better, easier, less of trial to get out of bed in the morning - next year. They live from holiday to holiday and get absolutely no fulfilment or satisfaction from the clinical work that they do or the people for whom they are supposed to care.

Often they succumb to the stressors. One of my contemporaries only accepted that he had a problem when he needed a quarter bottle of vodka to start work in the morning and was facing his third drink driving conviction.

I have attended funerals of successful and apparently happy dentists who have taken their own lives because they could only see one way out.

These problems are not unique to dentists and many people “live lives of quiet desperation” so I would encourage them to change also, if they can.

What else is possible?

The answer is anything that you want to be. There are ex-dentists who are successful architects, writers, lawyers, musicians and businessmen. I know of one former specialist orthodontist who now builds dry-stone walls (and will also teach you how to build them). The discipline of your training means that you are suited to re-train in many disciplines.

Let’s not forget those people who are stuck in a rut. NHS dentistry has never embraced excellence, though lots of good work is done in spite of the system. You will never perform at the highest level on the conveyor belt of UDAs or whatever imposed system of production is in vogue this year.

If you are having second thoughts then I suggest that you examine your reasons. If you feel that you aren’t right for a job that demands a high standard of manual dexterity in order to practice at its best then you should explore your options.

Darwin says that empathy is instinctive not learned, so if you are not a person-person will you be happy going against the grain and attempting to gain the trust of your patients day in day out for the next 30 years?

If you are doing it just for the money, you will probably be disappointed at the amount of further training, dedication to a career pathway and sheer hard work that it will take. You might get a better return on the invested time in some other field.

On the other hand if you stay and you choose to dedicate yourself to a unique discipline, then every day will give a new challenge. You have the opportunity to grow as the leader of a team in a niche where you help your patients not only to achieve and maintain an important element of their general health but also to have an enhanced sense of confidence, comfort and function.

If you want to be happier then say so, and do something. This isn’t a rehearsal, there is no second chance, no re-run, no “it’ll be all right on the night”. If you want to be better nobody can do it for you. If you need help ask those who have already done it, study excellence and embrace it.

Polonius said to his son:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd 2016

Recent comment in this post
Gaurav Vij

Great post....

Great post and sums it up succinctly. My experience is very few are cut out to be dentists. You are basically a surgeon in the cla... Read More
Saturday, 16 January 2016 07:20
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Davids and Goliaths of Dentistry

Davids and Goliaths of Dentistry

This post was stimulated by my re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David & Goliath”. In it he examines the underdog in several circumstances and how they have managed to overcome the odds to become victorious.

Initially I was looking to draw analogies between the “corporate” large and chain practices and the small, independent practice. My idea was to show that a good little ‘un can beat a big ‘un every time. The idea grew on me so I have expanded the remit.

Quite often when I listen to owners of small dental practices I am reminded of the children’s ‘swing song’ that starts, “Nobody loves us, everybody hates us, think I’ll go and eat worms”. Certainly when one looks at the plethora of legislation, political interference and change in consumer expectations one can understand this attitude. Yet it is those changes or rather the practices’ response to them that can make success more likely.

Let’s look at the David and Goliath of the title. David was smaller, poorly equipped and had no experience of battle. Goliath on the other hand was battle hardened and massive in terms of both physical size and equipment. But we know the result, one slingshot brought the giant to defeat.

Perhaps with these two protagonists we saw a hint of the first guerrilla war. History shows that a larger organisation doesn’t approve of small groups. Michael Collins and his flying columns had learned lessons from TE Lawrence (of Arabia) whose methods, although successful, were frowned upon by the British authorities.

The Davids of Dentistry are used to being the smaller person, indeed one of the reasons for successful small practices is that the owner will put in hours outside the “9 to 5” for repairs, maintenance and upkeep. These hours are never allocated in year end accounts. The successful Davids are light on their feet, flexible and adaptable, they know their terrain and where they can operate to best advantage.

The Goliaths have capital, resources and are “business savvy”, whatever that means. They can absorb wasted efforts, tolerate inefficiencies of staff and materials and, above all, can take a long view.

The negative for the Davids is that they can get stuck in a rut of reacting to circumstances and their campaigns are short term. Financial survival is usually at the top of their agenda meaning that they tend not to consider a long term strategy. In order to survive they need, in the words of Alastor Moody, constant vigilance, this becomes wearisome with time and contributes to their eventual burn out.

On the downside for Goliaths is their rigidity and lack of conventionality as their bean counter driven businesses seek to impose an external model onto a personal service. A surfeit of management levels and often unsympathetic HR practices mean that their teams operate at less than optimum efficiency.

The important thing for Davids has been to avoid the  temptation to take on the Goliaths at their own game and terrain because they will surely lose. With market changes it becomes more and more difficult in the post Shipman world for David to remain profitable. The battlefield has morphed too, the big armies of Goliath have taken a lot of the easy low ground of the NHS contracts and can use their clout and experience to bid for more.

Davids must choose their battles, battlegrounds and to time their campaigns with care. They need to learn not only from Goliaths’ mistakes but also from their successes and ensure that they are strong where their opponents are weak. In addition they must look at all the Davids in other professions and industries for inspiration.

Can Goliath learn? Of course he can. To my knowledge nobody has devised a franchise operation in Dentistry that reflects the unique elements of the profession, rewards the franchisee and gives them a sense of freedom. Not yet but with imagination it could work if done properly.

The pattern of post-war Britain has been about smaller companies being absorbed by larger ones. Is it possible for the independents to stay small and free of involvement? Perhaps the model for freedom is one of small managed groups of practices? Here much of the tiresome “grunt” work is centralised. It is this work that, in my experience, ultimately leads to owners losing their resilience, their final fatigue and despair. This sees with them reluctantly selling to a Goliath or to another increasingly cash-strapped David to perpetuate the battle. This group model leaves the clinicians and customer facing team members to do what they are good at with support coming from dedicated and probably off site back office.

All wars eventually end with talks and compromise. The challenge for the different Davids is to find someone with whom you can share a philosophy of business and agree a way forward to keep your places on the battlefield of dentistry. This way the strengths, efficiencies and independence of you Davids can be continued.


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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd 2015

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Why isnt perio sexy?

Why isnt perio sexy?

Why isn’t Perio sexy?

My undergraduate years were spent in the old Dental School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. During my five years I learned about dentures, amalgam, gold, porcelain and of course the use of forceps of all shapes and sizes.

I know there was a periodontology department, my tutor was a senior lecturer. The staff were perceived as a bit wet, uninspiring and dominated by the rest of the “cons” floor. Our restorative treatment plans always ended with the phrase “S&P”. There was a hygienist training school but our paths only crossed socially and the idea of integration was years away.

We had to do a “perio" case as a final year project, and mine was to be shared with another student. The patient was wore a chrome partial denture and “needed” a full mouth gingivectomy. My colleague did his half of the mouth, using whatever technique was fashionable then, reviewed her and re-appointed for my ministrations in a month. With gingivectomy knives all set I looked in her mouth, looked at the notes, looked back again and realised that I couldn’t tell the difference between the treated and untreated sides. Patient discharged and my case written up with the patient described as “non-compliant”. I passed - so that’s OK then.

Three years of oral surgery only added to my ignorance. Then the move into general practice, an NHS amalgam factory with a hygienist. One serving five dentists. The mystery deepened, what were these things called PGTs and why did they have to be booked at 11.45am? The answer, the appointment straddled midday so covered two sessions. My introduction to gaming.

I moved from practice to practice, some scale and polishes were bloodier than others, sometimes the blood oozing around the matrix band or the acetate strip was a nuisance. In 1985 I joined a practice where there was a newly qualified hygienist whose company I enjoyed, she explained that her role was primarily as a communicator. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

But then the practice was sold. The new regime sacked the two hygienists as being unprofitable and told the associates that they should be looking to do at least four crowns on every patient. I jumped ship - again. It seemed that everywhere I worked patients were treated as mouths on legs whose teeth were there for the benefit of the dental profession.

In December 1987, disillusioned by dentistry but searching for something, I rolled up at the Grand Hotel in Leicester for an evening course given by Phillip Greene. I met the WHO/CPITN probe.

A revelation! First move, order half a dozen CPITN probes. Second, explain to each and every patient what was going on, why it was important and what would happen next. Then a setback, the hygienist was sacked for having the temerity to tell the practice owner’s patients that they had gum disease. He explained it to me by saying that, “hygienists were mostly cosmetic really, a bit like hairdressers”.

For a decade I had drifted but was now a man possessed. I had a dream and a plan. I had been reactive, patients brought their diseases for me to treat. Time for a paradigm change, let’s make a presumption that people want to be healthy and to stay healthy.

The only solution was to start my own practice, so I did. It went well, so I started another 12 months later. In those days I used nurses to inform, to educate, to explain what the diseases were and how they could be controlled. No scaling until plaque control was good. I persuaded “the hygienist” to move to Gloucestershire to join me and for the next fifteen years we worked in adjacent surgeries sharing our patients.

I did the first BUOLD course in perio, I joined the BSP, I bought and read Jan Lindhe’s textbook.

The patients who had good plaque control had fewer problems, their endo treatments worked, they didn’t get recurrent caries, working on them was easier win/win.

We became a practice that listened and talked to our patients. When the time came to leave the NHS most understood why and stayed with us. When treatment options were explored the patients got it, there was already a relationship so we never had to worry about “selling”. Choices were offered, benefits outlined, costs explored and commitment gained, either then or further down the line.

All because everything was done on a basis of health.

Nearly 30 years on from my epiphany I talk to clients and find that many dentists are still driven by what they can do to patients rather than for them. Perio (along with paediatrics, prevention, pathology and public health) is still a Cinderella subject. Hygienists still work in cupboards.

Yet those practices that embrace health thrive, are profitable and happy.

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© Alun Rees, GDPUK Ltd 2015

Recent Comments
Bruce Mayhew

Reply following your perio art...

Dear Alan I see your posting from time to time and often wonder if Dave Bridges was your hygienist,(because he was right up the sh... Read More
Tuesday, 17 November 2015 18:03
Alun Rees

Thanks Bruce

Hi Bruce Thanks for taking the time to comment. Although Dave Bridges and I practiced in the same city (Gloucester) we were not i... Read More
Tuesday, 17 November 2015 18:48
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