Dentistry Top 50 – an inside look

When it comes to the subject of influence, James Goolnik is in no doubt about its importance. Asked what advice he’d give to anyone entering the UK dental profession now, he says: ‘Suck as much knowledge as you can from your mentors and all those you aspire to be like – and learn from them.’

And influence is the benchmark of our annual Top 50 campaign. Every year we ask readers of Dentistry magazine and users of to vote for whoever they think are the most influential people in the UK dental sector, and this year James was voted number one.

So how did his journey begin? ‘I’ve always liked working with people and I was good with my hands,’ he says. ‘So at school I was thinking about the medical side of things as I was always good at biology. I spent a day in a GP surgery but I just found it tedious. It was full of paperwork and didn’t really have any connection to people.

‘There was also a lot of box-ticking to see if someone’s suitable for a certain procedure and then getting approval, and then maybe not necessarily fixing anyone at the end of it.
‘But then I was lucky enough to spend a day with my local dentist, Dr Bay, at his practice in Highgate Village in north London and I had a blast. The day went by in what seemed like ten minutes. I got to see the carpentry inside the mouth and help fix people and make them feel more confident, and I got a real buzz out of it.

‘I noticed how he had a great rapport with his patients and he had a good team with him, including a hygienist and orthodontist, and I just liked the whole way it worked. After seeing that, everything else I’d tried paled into insignificance.’

Up close and personal
Best trait: Very generous
Worst trait: Addicted to exercise; yoga
Best quality in people: Ability to share
Worst quality in people:
Being rude – especially to serving staff. I really hate that
What do you like doing in your spare time?
Visiting the theatre – Richard III starring Kevin Spacey was stunning
Favourite food: Sushi
Favourite drink: A good ginger beer with fresh lime
Favourite book: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
Favourite film: The Usual Suspects
Favourite album: Twentysomething, by Jamie Cullum

He went on to qualify from King’s College London in 1992, and was straight into the deep end. ‘I worked for an NHS practice after qualifying and tried different things out, and also another practice that was mixed fifty-fifty, but found it difficult to do the balance between the two of them. Although King’s is a great college, my degree didn’t teach me much about business or communication skills, or the psychology of why people come to see you and why they don’t.

‘Realising what I was missing was a big learning point, so I tried various different things. I was interested in alternative therapies so did a specialist course in hypnotherapy and one in acupuncture.’

Big decisions
At this point, James wanted to take his learning experience to a new level. ‘I was thinking about doing a course in the States, but in the end decided to do a Masters in Conservative Dentistry at the Eastman  – I’m a Londoner and wanted to stay in contact with my family and friends.’
But then came an unusual – and not particularly unwelcome – dilemma to deal with. ‘At the time I’d just been handed a fabulous job in the city,’ he says.

‘An American dentist had come over wanting to set up a clinic and he’d cherry-picked me. So I was, in effect, the boss who did everything without the financial responsibility – effectively my business with his money, which was an ideal testing ground for running a business.

‘It had taken two years to get on to the Eastman course after being on the waiting list, so the timing was awkward, but eventually it was agreed that I’d do the masters part-time while I was running the clinic, which was in Moorgate. It was great to have a toe in both camps – I had the academic side with the lab work combined with the responsibility of running a clinic and the treatment planning and seeing what patients want. I learnt a lot and my dentistry ability went up massively.

‘When I finished there I wanted to have more control. Having done my own lab work for two years and working closely with technicians, I realised I wouldn’t achieve the dentistry I wanted to achieve without a lab on site. I was fussy about colours and shades and what was and wasn’t possible. So I looked for something suitable and founded Bow Lane [opened in 2001]. It had two surgeries then, we extended to four and, thanks to a loft conversion, we’ve now gone up to six. We’ve run out of space now so that’s as big as it’s getting!’

The private practice now has the reputation of being one of the finest in the city, providing all aspects of cosmetic dentistry with the multi-specialist team the business has established as it has grown.

Also on the rise has been James’ profile. He lectures internationally and has run a hands-on whitening course for the last three years. He is on the board of the British Dental Bleaching Society, has written for several magazines including Maxim, and has also been interviewed on many television and radio shows.

He joined the executive board of the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (BACD) and served as its president in 2010. That same year it was no surprise to see James soar into Dentistry’s Top 50 poll for the first time, the highest new entry at number four. Twelve months later he came top of the pile.

So, what’s been his secret in getting there? ‘I’m very determined,’ he says. ‘If I see something, nothing will get in my way to get it, especially if someone says it’s not possible – that’s the ultimate challenge! There’s also the power of the network – I have a strong, close group of friends and family and within the dental community too, and I’ve learnt that you can’t get anywhere on your own.

‘We have 16 people working at Bow Lane now and I’ve leant leadership skills on the way – I’ve realised that it’s important to know what motivates people, and the biggest thing is listening. Lots of dentists are crap at listening but it’s vital – by listening to your team you can learn where we’re falling down, how we can do things better, and also where they want to go in their careers, and how I can help nurture them.

‘That goes for listening to your patients, too. Everyone’s got a motivation, why they’re sitting in your chair, and you must find it out, whether it’s that they’re getting married, their partner’s said they’ve got bad breath, or it could be that they’ve had an ache for ages and are concerned they might have cancer and want you to reassure them that it’s nothing to do with that. It’s vital that you discover their motivation.’

Making a splash
That drive to succeed is evident in his life away from dentistry, too. Asked to name a particular achievement he’s proud of, he’s quick to respond: ‘Doing a triathlon was one of the biggest things for me. I did it three years ago having taught myself to swim, which many people doubted I could do at the age of 38. Psychologically I just couldn’t put my head in the water, I felt claustrophobic.

‘When I was 13 I was thrown into the swimming pool by my instructor, saying “it’s rubbish that you can’t swim, Goolnik!” Somehow I managed to crawl my way out and ran home three miles in my Speedos with him chasing after me. He believed me after that!
‘Aside from that, I’m obviously proud to be voted the most influential person in UK dentistry, and of my book [Brush; proven strategies to make you and your dental business shine, all profits from which go to Dentaid], and having my kids [twins Harry and Kate, now nine].

‘I’ve always been somebody who pushes the barriers. We were the first practice in the world to have an iPhone app, we really pushed branding, being pioneers in using the colour purple and producing videos for our website. Working with a dynamic team in the heart of the financial district in London there’s so many changes you can try – lots of things didn’t work but when they did they really worked.’

There must be plenty he has learned along the way. ‘As I’ve become more experienced I’ve learnt that sharing is important,’ he replies. ‘I get a lot of personal satisfaction seeing people make a change from something they’ve seen me do or from what I’ve taught them on one of my courses.
‘I was on the executive council of the BACD for three years before assuming the presidency, and I learnt about diplomacy and connections with different parts of dentistry, realising that actually we can achieve so much more if we all work together. All the associations share a common goal – to improve the lives of our patients. We may have a different way of getting there and a different audience, but together we can make quite a big difference. In my term as president we generated £17,000 for the children’s charity, Facing the World. I think if you ask dentists in the right way they are quite charitable.’

And why does he think he received so many votes in the 2011 Top 50 poll? ‘Everyone I interact with I try to leave them feeling better about themselves and learning something. On my courses I’ve really focused over the last couple of years on thinking it’s not about me or what I’ve done, but about what they can do with my knowledge, and I’ve been trying to give back as much as possible.

‘That’s what happens when you’re involved with something like the BACD – your work, which you’re contributing for free, is promoting the organisation rather than individuals. Writing my book, too, is all about giving something back, trying to promote Dentaid. I think people kind of like and appreciate what I do. I’ve lived my life the way I talk about it, there’s lots of people in dentistry who say one thing and then do something differently.’

Positivity needed
What would he like to change about the profession? ‘I’d like to inject more positivity back into it – there’s been an awful lot of whinging and moaning over the last few years, especially with CQC, HTM 01-05, and the new contract. You want to say that dentistry’s a fantastic profession, we can choose our own hours, say no to the patients we don’t want to treat, take control of a business and be as big as we want to be, depending on how many hours we do and what sort of dentistry we do. People are moaning because they have to put a washer disinfector in – well that’s to protect the patients, isn’t that in their best interests?

‘With whitening, people are going to beauticians not only because it’s cheaper but because dentistry is quite scary and can be unfriendly – if you walk into a hairdresser’s it smells nicer, there are no drills or sharp instruments and no one’s going to tell you off for not cleaning your teeth properly. All this telling off that dentists sometimes do can appear patronising and just doesn’t work.

‘I’d also like to reduce that barrier to access – some people don’t go to a dentist because they’re very anxious so they need to be reassured, others don’t go because of cost – but are we telling them that the cheapest dentistry is prevention? These messages need to get across. If we make practices more welcoming, I think we’d get a lot more patients and they’ll come back regularly because they’d find it a pleasurable experience.’

He’d also like to see some clarity over the tooth-whitening debate currently engulfing the industry. ‘Some dentists are scared to do it and are instead turning to veneers and more invasive work,’ he says. ‘Clearly whitening does work and it’s safe. It would be nice to make it vey clear across the board and say up to 6% hydrogen peroxide supervised by a dental professional – I don’t think that has to be a dentist, a hygienist or therapist could do it as long as they’ve been trained in the technique. That will also drive the cost down. The labelling and instructions on the take-home products should also be clearer.’

As for the future, James envisions a slightly different structure in the provision of dental care. ‘I see there being a lot more direct access, people going to their hygienists and therapists for their routine care, they tend to be more friendly and have better communication skills and better rapport. The dentists will be screening people, triaging the patients and saying “okay, you’re in for this maintenance regime so you need to see a restorative specialist” or an implantologist and so on.

‘I also think there will be a lot more micro-specialists, people just doing this or that, as well as more genetic testing – based on your specific genes and specific habits and diets. It will be very targeted rather than telling everyone to come back in six months.’

James has certainly packed a lot into his career, but the ambitions don’t stop now. ‘I’m writing another book,’ he says. ‘It will be aimed at the public and it’s about overcoming one of the barriers to dental care. I’m writing it with a comedian friend of mine, but that’s all I want to say for now!’

James will be at the Dentaid stand at the BDTA Dental Showcase (20-22 October at Birmingham’s NEC), as part of the Instrument Amnesty campaign. Unwanted, sterilised instruments can be donated to help under-resourced dentists improve oral care in developing countries. James will also be presenting his lecture, Naked Dentistry, at the event on 21 Friday at 10am.

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