“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This proverb comes from the Japanese culture, one that is often believed to value conformity over deviance. Blending in is safe and comfortable. Standing out is risky and unsettling. Our basic human instincts tell us to stay under the radar in order to survive and thrive.
While status quo is easier, it is not necessarily better. Dentistry has come a long way from barber-surgeons and bloodletting, thanks to local anesthetic, aseptic technique and modern dental materials. Each innovation was born as a bold, new concept before being accepted as the mainstream standard. Each required someone to push the limits and break the mold. Taking risks certainly has its rewards, but innovating is not for the faint of heart.
Innovation requires time. I am reminded of the two summers I spent before dental school working in a research laboratory. My job was to dissect fish eyes and runs tests to find gene mutations associated with glaucoma. I spent countless hours on benchtop experiments and meticulous record-keeping. After months of hard work – spoiler alert – I did not cure glaucoma.
Innovation requires failures. Breakthroughs are rare, but failures are common. If we venture into uncharted territory, we are bound to sometimes get lost. The key is learning and recovering from failures. While I did not find any genes that cause glaucoma, I suppose I did find many genes that didn’t cause glaucoma. My co-workers in the research lab would call that a success. It may not feel like much of a win, but its progress. The same is true for dentistry. Not every limited exam leads to an immediate diagnosis of the problem, but every exam does help rule out a few things the problem is not.
On a positive note, innovation prevents commoditization. If a patient believes dentists are “all the same,” we are left to be judged by only one metric – price. Standing out from the crowd is a good way to avoid becoming a commodity. Go out of your way to teach patients what makes your dental care truly different.
Innovation makes the whole profession better for dentists and the public alike. As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Again, dental care has vastly improved with numerous advancements in technology and science. We have come so far, but we still have plenty of room to get better. Even with today’s advances, 80% of U.S. patients still feel some level anxiety at the dental office.
No discoveries will be made if no one is willing to explore. For example, consider our cover feature. Dental therapy dogs may be a bit unconventional, but offer the potential for improved mood, health and drug-free anxiety management. Consider teledentistry. A high-quality virtual visit means patients can be assessed in a place and time you choose. How might your busy schedule run differently with less pre- and post-op visits consuming a chair? How might your patient base grow beyond the barrier of the time it takes to drive to your office? What might it mean to an anxious patient to take that difficult first step toward transformative care without having to sit in the dental chair?
Yes, innovating has its ups and downs. But hey, no pain, no gain. No risk, no reward! Cheers to the early adopters out there. We can’t all be them, but we all need them. Thank you to all those who dare to do something different and propel our profession forward.
Dr. Ryan Dulde is a general dentist in Eagle, WI and the editor for the Wisconsin Dental Association (WDA) Journal. He received his bachelor’s degree at Marquette University before graduating from the Marquette University School of Dentistry in 2011. Following college and dental school, Dr. Dulde continued his studies in Flagstaff, AZ before returning home from residency to begin practicing in the Milwaukee area. In 2013, he opened his own practice, Eagle Dental. He served as Speaker of the House for the American Student Dental Association in 2011, and is currently a member of the ADA and WDA. Dr. Dulde and his wife Lauren have two sons, Ben and Luke, and a dog named Cooper.
Editor’s note: This article, republished with permission, originally appeared in the August issue of the Wisconsin Dental Association Journal.