Blinkin’ and thinkin’

July 1, 2006
Let’s face it; dentistry is a very complex field. To master it, we must become proficient in any number of skills ...

Let’s face it; dentistry is a very complex field. To master it, we must become proficient in any number of skills ranging from the expert use of tools, to the softer behavioral skills of management and communication, to - let’s not forget - the skills associated with running the financial side of a practice. Dentistry requires us to use a combination of our hands, minds, and hearts. Essentially, the master dentist must become a very good problem-solver long before he/she picks up a handpiece. I learned a lot about effective problem-solving by watching two men I knew some years ago. They were horse racing handicappers who made their living solving very complex problems.

Both men had their unique styles of coming up with winners. Both of them were quite successful, and by that I mean they usually picked winners at a rate much higher than the public’s rate of 30 percent, which is the number of times the favorite horse generally wins over the long term. Steve would spend hours analyzing the racing form while Don would hardly read the form. Steve agonized over his picks while Don, it appeared, just cast his fate to the wind. Steve generally picked the first or second public choice while Don always played long shots. Although both were very successful, the irony is that Don picked more winners and his winners always paid handsomely.

The strangest thing about these two guys is that if one asked Steve how he came up with his winner, he could explain every detail so that it made perfect sense. Don, on the other hand, just told people he had a hunch. I don’t have to tell you that more people followed Steve to the betting window.

These two successful problem-solvers used two distinct methods and different sides of their brains. Steve is a left-brain thinker; he uses logic, analysis, and language very well. We live in a left-brain world, because left-brain thinkers are very good at explaining, even when they are wrong. Don is a right-brain thinker. He uses nonrational concepts, notices relationships, and sees how things are put together to form a whole, and is very aware of things with minimal ties to words. In a word, Don is very intuitive. We generally look at the right-brainers as being a bit flighty - that is, until Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book titled Blink that gave a lot of credence to the right-brain thinker and intuition.

Blink is a very engaging book, and Gladwell’s stories about making snap judgments as a valid method for solving complex problems are quite convincing. Well, his arguments were quite convincing until I read Michael LeGault’s book, Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in a Blink of an Eye. LeGault takes Gladwell to task. He believes our culture depends way too much on intuition at the expense of critical thinking. I had to agree with LeGault, because in every one of Gladwell’s cases the decision maker was someone who had years of experience in his or her field before exhibiting that intuitive moment of truth ... sort of like Don and the horses.

Dentists must use critical thinking as well. We are faced every day with problems to solve. Depending too much on intuition can lead to poorly executed snap decisions. Snap decisions can range from buying that new piece of equipment to taking an expensive continuing-education course. Every decision we make should at least be put through some method of critical thinking, until one gathers enough experience to make a snap decision. I guess this may be called experience.

One area that requires critical thinking more than any other is treatment planning. Dentistry is a very complex field, and those dentists who choose to practice comprehensive dentistry must understand this complexity. It’s true that I could take a set of study models and radiographs to a master dentist who could reel off a treatment plan like Don picks winners, but that’s because he/she has years of experience. I am awed by dentists who can work through a case and explain the complexity. The master dentist, in other words, uses both sides of his/her brain - he/she thinks and blinks, like a combination of Don and Steve.

Treatment planning is becoming dentistry’s lost art. There is too much emphasis placed on materials, techniques, and equipment. Learning how to think could be a dentist’s greatest asset. It separates the real winners from the losers.

Dr. Barry F. Polansky practices in Cherry Hill, N.J., and is the author of the book, The Art of the Examination, and publisher of Dental Life, a newsletter dedicated to finding balance and happiness in private dental practice. He is the founder of the Academy of Dental Leadership,, which offers small group and individual practice coaching. Dr. Polansky is on the visiting faculty of The Pankey Institute and may be e-mailed at [email protected].

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