A new hole or a deeper hole?

When we amble around the corridors of any dental exhibition, or sit in a conference auditorium or seminar room for any length of time, the chances are that we will come within touching distance of something that could make a big difference to our professional lives.

It may be a new instrument or piece of equipment that can make our life easier, or enable us to improve the quality of the work we do. It may be a really simple practical tip or a throw-away comment from a speaker that somehow strikes a chord with us and encourages us to change direction or think about things in a different way.

The perennial and much-quoted problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We walk disinterestedly past an uninspiring looking stand not realising the opportunities and gems that are concealed within it. We eye up a conference programme and find ourselves drawn towards speakers and topics that we like, and know won’t disappoint or bore us. But in doing so we don’t get to hear that speaker whose name we don’t recognise, or learn about that other topic that somehow doesn’t get our juices flowing.

My lifelong guru Edward de Bono wrote a book called Opportunities many years ago. If you ever stumble across it, don’t squander the opportunity to read it. Drawing from his ‘lateral thinking’ model he explained the difference between digging the same hole deeper, or starting a new hole somewhere else. In terms of postgraduate education most of us tend to dig the same hole deeper, polarising towards our most favoured topics and avoiding lectures on areas of dentistry that we don’t get involved in very often. As a result, much of our time and money is spent on reinforcing existing knowledge and beliefs, adding new information and understanding only at the margins. The greater opportunity, where steep changes in knowledge and understanding are up for grabs, lies in the topics that we haven’t attended a course on for years.

Tools for the job
I was attending the FDI World Dental Congress a few years ago and walking with a longstanding friend and colleague down one of the miles of corridors, between gleaming, richly carpeted and brightly lit stands. We turned a corner into a less salubrious suburb of the exhibition area, where the stands were smaller, cheaper and more austere, the lights dimmer and the carpets thinner. A rather sad looking trade rep was perched on a bar stool reading the newspaper, apparently having given up on doing any business. If he had made any less effort on making the stand look attractive, he would not have been there at all.

For reasons best known to himself, but perhaps out of sheer devilment, my friend drifted across to the stand and asked the man how things were going. ‘Flat out,’ he said, with his face now wreathed in a beaming smile, ‘Rushed off my feet.’  

I should explain in passing that there is a coded language used by trade exhibitors at big exhibitions when they are less busy than expected. You need to rationalise things and occupy your time, so you start by blaming the economy, then the organisers and the choice of location, the car parking, then move on to the weather, poor signage, an unfortunate off-piste position away from the main thoroughfare and key draws like the entrance, refreshment areas, toilets etc. After that you can move on to more imaginative options like the lecture programme being too good, or not good enough, or running behind schedule… and so on.

But anyway, my colleague asked the salesman to show him the one thing he had on the stand that could transform his life. Being a salesman he swung into default mode and asked a few exploratory questions first, but then he pulled out a bit of kit that neither of us had seen anything like before. I don’t know whether it ever changed my colleague’s life, but it certainly changed my own perspective on trade shows.

Build up
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the heavily marketed product that promises a lot but delivers very little. I must have bought a hundred boxes of stuff over the years that would qualify for this accolade.

It’s a bit like the restaurant that feels the need to adorn itself with flashing lights, potted conifers, and – especially – laminated pictures of the food within, clinging precariously to the outside of the building either side of the entrance. I always wonder if the laminated pictures are there to cover up the Improvement Notices from the Health and Safety Executive.

We, too, often spend a lot of money on things that don’t have much of an impact on the actual quality of the care we provide. They are sometimes the visible trappings of the kind of practice that we wish to portray ourselves as having. This is not to say that it is not a good idea, but simply to say that we should not lose sight of what is really important and what we are really here for. I think it was the marketing sage Colin McIver who suggested: ‘If you have got something to shout about, then shout. But until then save your breath and save your money.’ In short, spend your money on making sure the core product itself is good, before spending any money on marketing it.

Weak foundations
And on that very topic, the demise of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust continues as it recently became the first foundation trust to be placed into administration. This decision was taken after it was concluded that the Trust was neither clinically nor financially sustainable in its present form. When one considers how much time and effort has been put in by hospital managers up and down the country, to achieve the vaunted ‘Foundation Trust’ status – which of course lay at the heart of all the problems at Mid-Staffs – it is ironic indeed that this soubriquet has become so devalued as to be not just meaningless, but almost inviting the question of what corners were cut in order to get there. It is almost a badge of shame, these days, rather than one of honour.

It is desperately sad for the families of those who died, but hardly a good day for staff, for current patients and for the peace of mind of those communities who rely upon the hospitals that formed the discredited Trust.

Worth a thought if you are attending this year’s Dentistry LIVE event. If nothing else, we should be asking ourselves what we are planning to change for the better as a result of our attendance – and then make sure it happens.


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