Dentistry and the Creative Age

March 10, 2014
With the passage of time, everything changes: technology, our bodies, and even our teeth change. Shifting, drifting, supra-eruption, erosion, and wear are some of the few naturally occurring changes.

By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

With the passage of time, everything changes: technology, our bodies, and even our teeth change. Shifting, drifting, supra-eruption, erosion, and wear are some of the few naturally occurring changes. Time also reveals different ways of managing our dental practices. We adjust, adopt, and embrace change and cutting-edge innovations, or we become stagnant and stale with our practices getting left behind.

Business writers and thinkers tell us that we are entering a new era. We have long ago left the Agricultural Age of the 18th century, the Industrial Age of the 19th century, and are presently leaving the 20th century's Information Age. The new ere is referred to as the Creative Age.


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What exactly is the Creative Age? It is the recognition that the old model where "knowledge is power" is past. We all have access to reams of information at our fingertips. There is more computing power in a hand-held computing device than there was in the rooms filled with computers of the 1950s. If I were to ask anyone what the gross domestic product of Nigeria was in 2012, they could find the answer in a minute. There is no shortage of knowledge and it is readily available.

The world is changing rapidly, and the turbulence caused by the inability to adjust will be catastrophic for many industries, including dentistry. Patients today are educated, sophisticated and savvy. They are not necessarily looking to the dental professional for general knowledge. They are looking for dental professionals to offer alternative solutions to their pains, wishes, or desires. They want a good experience where they feel valued and cared for by someone they trust. This experience is often delivered by the hygienist.

Although we don't think of professionals as being threatened in today's economic environment by having their work outsourced, we, in fact, see examples of exactly that. People seeking lawyers, accountants, along with a multitude of other industries are going offshore to locate professional businesses. You can get a divorce on line for $49.99. You can have an accountant in Mumbai do your tax return for $29.99.

The dental profession is not immune to this condition. We know that patients are crossing the border to Mexico to have major dental work done. Some patients combine traveling with work delivered, rationalizing the cost savings paid for the trip. Undercutting fees of local competitors is occurring in order to increase market share. These are challenging economic times and thus a new economy is developing.

This new age is about creativity and innovation. We need to come up with new ideas, look at problems from a different perspective, take risks, and tap into right-brain creative thinking. Leading educators are recognizing the need to promote "different thinking" to our children in the Conceptual Age. Sir John Jones, a leading expert in creative education, says that a full 80% of children in elementary school will, as adults, be working in professions that aren't even invented yet. Right-brain thinking with its functions of synthesis, imagination, and seeing the big picture are being stressed in education and in fact in all fields.

Teaching components in leading medical schools, such as the New York University School of Medicine, recognize the need for "different thinking" with the physicians they are graduating. They routinely offer classes at art museums in order to train the medical students' eyes to view art both holistically and in detail. This approach facilitates diagnosis of unusual conditions of their patients. It helps them see the whole picture as well as the detail in identifying illnesses. In addition, empathy is being measured in all U.S. medical schools, thanks to JSPE testing (Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy).

Dentistry, too, can benefit from adopting the right-brain function of holistic and empathetic vision. Science confirms that the mouth is a reflection of overall health. Right-brain training can make hygienists better equipped by being more empathetic. Listening to our patients with our full attention and truly "hearing" our patients may reveal underlying, seemingly unrelated issues that a simple visual inspection cannot determine.

Hearing stories of an illness with a family member or a sudden inability to sleep may alert us to our patient's underlying stress. With the stress hormone, cortisol, flushing through their bodies, it is little wonder that their immune system is compromised and they have ongoing dental infections. Through our acute observation we can potentially alert a patient to early onset cancer, heart disease, or even bone disease. Ropey saliva may help us alert our patient to a prediabetic condition. Relating to our patients empathically enables us to get the whole picture -- a picture that may be the difference between pain and comfort, loss and retention of teeth, or early recognition of other illnesses.

The reign of the innovators is here. Business writers proclaim that industries that can tap into right-brain innovation will rule. The good news is that innovative, right-brain thinking can be learned. Making a habit to ask thought-provoking questions that offer another perspective, networking with people with diverse backgrounds, utilizing honed skills of observation, and wise experimentation will aid in making free associations to find solutions to complex problems.

We know that educating our patients with accurate information is important. Yet, we need to do more. We need to become innovative to provide them with the experience of a positive outcome. This new era is all about design. How can we offer esthetically pleasing results with a positive rewarding experience? We have to grow with the times. Exercising the right brain, developing innovative ideas within our practices, and the ability to make great leaps of thought are the common denominators of breakthrough. Using this ability resides in people with wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experience.

Tapping into the resources of staff can put us on the cusp of a breakout. Promoting diversity, partnering with professional leaders who can lead training to innovative avenues enables practices to utilize the right brain by associating with creators. The whole minded professional must be literate in two cultures, comfortable both with the hard science of dentistry and the soft science of creative brainstorming.

The Creative Age of the 21st century will uncover the movers and the shakers. It will separate those who are passive and allow what comes from those who are proactive and create the future. It will highlight creative thinkers, those who can deliver the competence of leading edge dentistry along with a memorable experience for patients. It will reveal who succeeds.

How will you navigate this new era?

True or False

1. The Creative Age is about imagination, innovation, and new ideas.
2. The dental profession is immune to outsourcing in the global market.
3. The dental experience doesn't matter; patients only want knowledge.
4. There is no measure of empathy in medical training within the United States.
5. Becoming "whole" minded is the answer to succeeding in the Creative Age.

Answers: 1. True 2. False 3. False 4. False 5. True


1. Pink D. Drive. ISBN: 978-1-59448-480-3, Riverheadbooks, 2009.
2. Hojat M, Gonnella JS, Nasca TJ, Mangione S, Veloksi JJ, Magee M. Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy. The Journal of the Association of American Medical colleges, Oct 2002 – vol. 77, issue 10.
3. Dyer J, Gregersen H, Christensen CM. The Innovator's DNA. ISBN: 978142213481, Barnes & Nobel, 2011.
4. Divorce costs; Tax returns

DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .

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