A leading light in dental education
The recipient of the 2017 Scottish Dental Lifetime Achievement Award played a key role in the development of postgraduate dental education in Scotland
Alan Walker’s career has seen him influence, either directly or indirectly, the lives of literally thousands of young dentists in Scotland for more than 20 years.
And now, in retirement, the recipient of the Scottish Dental Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017, says he wouldn’t have changed a single thing in his near 40-year career. He said: “Looking back I have no regrets at all. I’ve loved the variety of my various jobs. Every move to another area of dentistry gave me a difficult decision because I was leaving something that I still really enjoyed. I consider myself lucky to have had these dilemmas.”
Alan qualified with BDS in 1979 from Glasgow Dental School and gained his MGDS in 1989. He worked as a house officer and then, over the next 22 years, as both a clinical assistant and a hospital practitioner at Glasgow Dental Hospital and School (GDHS). He was a general practitioner for 27 years and, for 23 of these, he was a practice owner and a successful one at that. Within the first seven years of ownership, he had doubled the size of the practice.
His understanding and empathy with ‘real dentists’ was grounded in his involvement with general practice
In 1995 he gained accreditation in hypnotherapy and delivered regular sessions at GDHS where he helped patients with intractable gagging difficulties and needle phobias. Alan’s close friend and colleague Jimmy Boyle, who was his “right hand man” for many years at NHS Education for Scotland (NES) said: “If you ever get a chance to speak with Alan, ask him about the time he was explaining hypnotherapy for smoking cessation to a patient and the packet of fags fell out of his top pocket.”
Jimmy, who is the current associate postgraduate dental dean and national
VT lead at NES, introduced and presented Alan with his award at the recent Scottish Dental Awards 2017 ceremony, which was held at the Glasgow Hilton. He said: “His understanding and empathy with ‘real dentists’ was grounded in his involvement with general practice.
“But it is probably for his involvement in dental education that he is best known, to me and to most in the profession.”
Changing the face of dental education
Alan became a CPD tutor for the Scottish Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education (SCPMDE) in 1994 and then for NES in 2002. He said: “After a number of years involved with undergraduate teaching, I was getting itchy feet. SCPMDE was in its infancy and a CPD tutor post was advertised. It appealed to me and I was encouraged by a few more experienced friends to apply.”
During this time, he introduced CPD courses across the west of Scotland as well as being involved in the introduction of the first CPD courses for DCPs. It was this involvement and interest in dental education and vocational training (VT) through being a past trainer, that saw his appointment as director of postgraduate dental education where he led VT locally and then nationally until his retirement in 2015.
Jimmy continued: “During this period, literally thousands of new graduates have him to thank for the support given to them in their first year of practice and for the sound principles taught which enabled them to work independently.
“He was also significantly involved in a number of important developments in vocational training including, most notably, the period immediately following the introduction of legislative satisfactory completion and the development of a national workstream for VT, which he led.
“This resulted in his taking charge of a national team of assistant directors – of whom I was one – advisers, trainers and VDPs as well as all of those dentists and therapists in training posts and all of those students who applied to VT.”
His experience in dental education didn’t stop there. He was an examiner for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (RCPSG) and served for more than a decade on the dental board and education committees. He is an experienced lecturer having delivered courses through the RCPSG, BDA and NES among others to audiences of GDPs, VDPs, DCPs, general nurses and doctors. He has been published in the British Dental Journal, Dental Update, Rostrum and Scottish Dental magazine.
Jimmy continued: “He has been an advocate throughout his career of common objectives in dental education and was pivotal in establishing regular interface meetings between postgraduate education in dental practice and undergraduate education at GDHS. These meetings are ongoing and are now extended to take place nationally.”
The high points
When asked about his career highlights, Alan said that he had enjoyed and valued every role he had taken on from GDP, GDHS and NES. He said: “I loved being in practice, missing particularly working with patients and the dental team when I stopped. Starting a bespoke hypnotherapy clinic and working with oral surgeons on post cancer patients were probably the Glasgow Dental Hospital and School highlights, although learning from consultants was great too.
“Introducing personal learning plans to CPD – badly as it turns out – and overseeing vocational training nationally were probably my NES highlights. A dental highlight since my retirement has been taking part in last year’s Smileawi programme to provide much needed dental treatment to poor rural Malawians. It was hard work but a great experience.”
Looking back, Alan picked out a few areas where he had seen significant change over the years. He said: “When I started in practice, and one with a good reputation, the practice had three surgeries, all of them suitable only for stand-up dentistry. A new seated-dentistry unit was installed for me and the staff at the time were somewhat amused by my seated dentistry.
“Each dentist had two full ‘cons kits’, sterilised by a hot air oven between patients, with instruments being cooled under running cold water if they were needed again in a hurry. Once a week there was there was a GA session for extractions and I saw as many as 20 patients being treated at a single session.
“Endodontics was reasonably predictable for upper anterior teeth but deemed a bit of a heroic attempt at saving a tooth if anywhere else in the mouth. The rigid reamers we used seemed like joiners’ screws compared to today’s hand instruments. Possibly the least changed disciplines of dentistry since those days are removable prosthodontics and oral surgery – exactly the two areas that I experienced as a house officer and continued to enjoy most for the next 30 years. Maybe that says a lot about my drive for innovation!”
And, he explained that the impact of postgraduate dental education was very different at the start of his career. He said: “In the old days it was not that uncommon for senior dentists in general practice to have progressed through their career having done little or no postgraduate education. Undoubtedly, the presence of mandatory CPD requirements and the development of education providers has not only given dentists an opportunity to advance and specialise, but also improved safety and treatment options for patients. It seems scary to think of the situation from my early years but I’m sure that in another 30 years, some of our current procedures will seem just as primitive.”
Recognition and reflection
Alan revealed that he couldn’t quite believe it when he was told that he had been chosen as the recipient of this year’s Scottish Dental Lifetime Achievement Award. He said: “My initial reaction was one of surprise and bewilderment.
On reflection, however, I was really chuffed that someone had even considered me.
“It was particularly pleasing that Jimmy Boyle was selected to present my award. I had worked closely with Jimmy in NES for a number of years and he had been a great ‘right hand man’ and adviser during the period following my appointment as director of postgraduate dental education at NES. There were many others who also greatly supported me and deserve my gratitude, so a huge thank you to them also.
“Jimmy said some complimentary things about me on the night and managed to do so with elegance and poise – and a straight face – throughout his address.”
And Alan explained that writing his acceptance speech gave him a welcome opportunity to look back and reflect on his career. He said: “Being the recipient of such an award inevitably produces different emotions. My first reaction was that I could think of a number of my colleagues who should easily have deserved this award and it was humbling to think that I had been chosen. Once I got over this train of thought, it dawned on me that receiving the honour would necessitate giving an address to the many people present at the dinner.
“Thinking about what I would say was an interesting process because it inevitably involved reflection about my life as a dentist and the various stages and incidents over the years. I was aware that those at the dinner would be enjoying themselves and would not relish sitting through a sombre speech spanning the years.
“However, through reflection, I realised that this was not a problem because the overwhelming feeling I had was one of genuine enjoyment. I hope the simple – and true – anecdotal tale I recalled on the night illustrated the fun I had over the years.
“Having to speak also provided a great opportunity to publicly thank all the people I worked with over the years in my different roles, and my patients, all of whom provided the environment on a daily basis for me to have this rewarding career and lots of fun along the way.
“I wasn’t feeling at my best on the day of the dinner due to illness but being there brought me out of my dumps. So, in addition to being a fantastically organised event, the dinner was a great tonic.
“It was great to bump into old friends and chat with people who I hadn’t met before. It was especially nice to come across people I had worked with in practice, taught as undergraduates or worked alongside at NES, most of whom I hadn’t seen in quite a long time.”