Race to the bottom

Stick to the truth when describing your skillset, don’t join the growing number who make themselves out to be celebrities, Kevin Lewis advises.

There are some moments in life where a tendency towards modesty and under-playing your hand is rather endearing. It can make a lot of strategic sense too, because it is a whole lot easier to live up to the expectations of others when you have tried to ensure that those expectations occupy the same galaxy as the one you are known to frequent.

We live in a world where the ‘information and choice’ mantra supports the notion of an empowered consumer. Healthcare, including dentistry, is part of that same milieu but – significantly – not all of healthcare and not all of dentistry. Individuals and businesses make claims about themselves sometimes for reasons of genuinely informing members of the public, but more often with marketing, promotion, competitive advantage and commercial gain in mind. Nothing wrong with that, but the dice are loaded against the patients, who must rely on the bona fides of those providing the information.

The glossy ‘health and beauty’ magazines and tabloids don’t run features on free services or cheap services, but on private services. Mostly big-ticket private services. And in a competitive marketplace, that is where the seeds of hype are so often sown. From the exotic names of the emporia from which these services are purveyed, to the mystical hyperbole used to describe the special knowledge and skill needed over and above that which ‘ordinary’ dentists can ever dream of possessing.

Then there is the supposed technical complexity of the procedures on offer and the ‘prestigious’ places and ‘institutions’ from where the ‘coveted’ ‘qualifications’ are obtained. If the location happened to be in New York, California, and other such destinations, the stardust sprinkler works overtime, but mentioning the USA is believed by many to be enough to do the trick – trick being the operative word.

Then there is the (usually generic) ‘celebrity card’ stating or implying that many A-list celebs are deliriously happy and satisfied previous clients of the aforesaid emporium. As if that serves as any kind of endorsement of the actual quality of the dentistry anyway – there is hardly a shortage of examples of famous people who have been made to look incredibly gullible (and bizarre in appearance) as a result of dentistry or facial aesthetics that they have undergone.

Mile high club

It’s that time of year when many of us will be clutching our boarding cards and entrusting our lives and safety to total strangers. We trust these strangers to be sufficiently skilled in their chosen field of work to transport us up 36,000 feet and back down again, and we trust the system around them to ensure that they are appropriately trained, competent and medically fit, and also to check at regular intervals throughout their working life that this remains so.

Airline pilots can occasionally be spotted strolling nonchalantly through the terminal sporting more gold braid than a cavalry officer at the Charge of the Light Brigade. But that aside, they don’t feel the need to hype their training, the number of flights they have completed or the hours they have flown. They don’t place adverts or commission advertorials, they don’t claim to be better than the next pilot, nor do they make any grand claims about their expertise. When the time comes for those dulcet tones to flow like caramel over us through the cabin PA system, they sound unflustered, on top of their game and firmly in control. A walk in the park, but at altitude. Here, the ultimate proof of the pudding is in the landing. Descend through the clouds and find me a runway at the airport where my car is parked, and I am yours forever.

Rapid descent

Why is it, then, that a growing number of dentists seem to have developed an interest in mythology? In some cases, pretty ancient mythology. To read some of the claims they make, there must have been a dead heat for the title of the world’s most amazing dentist, every year for the past century.

Claiming to be better than you really are, or indirectly rubbishing lesser mortals (aka your professional colleagues) is not clever, and it’s certainly not pretty. Claiming to be a specialist or using weasel words to imply that you are, when you are palpably not, is not just calculated to deceive, it’s dishonest – plain and simple.

Other countries have developed a range of pretty good fixes for this nonsense. Many maintain much more stringent controls over dentists advertising in the first place, or what they can say, some apply much stricter penalties for transgressions and especially for repeat offenders. Some of these fixes are very clever – if you exaggerate or say something that’s deceptive, misleading or untrue, you are required to tell every new and existing patient that you have been found guilty of attempting to mislead patients, including placing a statement to this effect prominently on your website for at least as long as you have been telling porky pies. The same applies if – through no fault of your own of course – a tame journalist happens to write the fairy tales on your behalf, perhaps in return for free treatment. If your name is mentioned, you take the rap whether you initiated it or not.

Once upon a time, many years ago, the GDC was bounced by the consumer lobby and organisations such as the (then) Office of Fair Trading, into relaxing its previously very tight restrictions on advertising by dentists. The stated aim was to allow patients access to the kind of information they expect, and arguably require, in order to make well informed and considered choices regarding their dental and oral health and treatment.

Instead, it has created a platform for deceiving patients  – not educating and informing them. The world has moved on and dentistry has moved on, and by degrees we have found ourselves in a race to the bottom. It is not an edifying spectacle to witness dentists advertising their wares like double glazing salesmen in a shopping mall or supermarket foyer. Those dentists who claim or imply celebrity status or mystical skills in ways that are intended to big themselves up and steal a march on other dentists, are in reality thumbing their nose at the GDC, at the training and experience of real specialists, and at all their other professional colleagues.

The GDC does not like it, but has limited options in terms of what to do about it, especially at a time when it is desperately trying to act more proportionately and regain the confidence of the profession. Initiating a high-profile proactive purge on inappropriate self-promotion by dentists could quickly flood the fitness to practise machinery and invite criticism as to how this could ever really amount to ‘current impairment’, even if a finding of ‘misconduct’ would be an open goal in so many of these cases.

It is safer for the GDC to sit on its hands than to be seen as the cause of another ARF hike. Too many people remember the GDC’s ill-fated 2014 advertising campaign.

Keep it simple

So, next time anyone is on the point of describing their skillset, it’s never a bad idea to stick to the truth and turn the volume down, not up. The very best people with the very best skills tend to let their work do the talking – they feel no need (and have no need) to drag their net across the bottom of the pond. While it smacks of desperation to resort to shameless and repeated self-promotion, it may not be commercial desperation but simply an insatiable need for personal recognition and a ‘celebrity’ of sorts.

We might instead take our cue from the literary giant Charles Dickens, whose last will and testament included a stipulation that his headstone should bear no inscription beyond simply his name and the dates of his birth and death. This was at Dickens’ own insistence that: ‘My name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb… I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works…’. Although he died in Kent and a grave was prepared for him there, a curious combination of circumstances led to him being buried in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. Quite right too – although even this was a small private occasion with less than a dozen people present.

Do we think more, or less of Dickens that he resisted self-aggrandisement even in the face of such achievements and public and literary acclaim? I know what I think.

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