It’s a career of two halves

11 November, 2013

For most people, breaking a tooth in a fall would be nothing more than an unpleasant memory. However, for David Macpherson, it inspired him to set out on a successful career as a dentist.

David, who is the principal dentist at Whitemoss Dental Practice in East Kilbride, describes the day in secondary school when he and his friends were “messing about” in a home economics class. He said: “I slipped on a piece of wet floor and hit the edge of a cooker with my face. I ended up at the dentist with my front tooth in half.

“As I was lying there I had a eureka moment of: ‘This is what I should do’. I wanted to do something with the public and I didn’t fancy a desk job. I was looking for something that was engaging and I was always quite good with my hands, so I just thought: ‘Wait a minute, this is it’.

“I’m working with people, I’m working with my hands and I’m not sitting behind a desk doing paperwork… well, turns out I was wrong about the paperwork!”

After graduating from Glasgow Dental School in 1991, David was part of the first cohort to take part in the new vocational training scheme and he was fortunate enough to get a job just five minutes from his family home in Newton Mearns.

Following his VT year, David worked in general practice in north Glasgow for a year and then joined Whitemoss in 1994 as an associate. At the time, the principal was making plans for his retirement and was grooming David to become a partner in the practice. However, it dawned on David that it would make more sense if he took over the practice and the principal became his associate.

He said: “I hadn’t heard of colleagues or peers changing roles before, but I asked him if it wouldn’t make more sense if he became my associate. That way, his transition to retirement becomes a lot easier and I take on all the hassle. So we did it and it worked, we never had a bad word and it allowed me to immediately start to put my mark on the practice.”

As soon as he took over, David put plans in place to transform the rather dated two-surgery practice into his vision of a modern clinic with patient care at its heart. “It was all about trying to make the place as non-dental as possible,” he said. “At university, my elective was on phobic patients, because I had an interest in people that were nervous.

“We looked at all the senses – people don’t tend to like the smell of the dentists, they don’t like the sounds of the dentists and they don’t like seeing nasty pictures. So we decided to get rid of all these things. We introduced aromatherapy candles and music.”

Moving away from the stereotypical “goldfish bowl in the corner and classical music”, David regularly offers to play the patients’ choice of music during their treatment, among other things, as an aid to relaxation. The Scotsman picked up on the story and this, inadvertently, led to him being mentioned on a French-Canadian Marilyn Manson fan website…

David explained: “I think the Scotsman used Marilyn Manson as it was the most unusual music we had played.

“Someone from the fanzine must have been Googling and came across the story. So, there I was in this fanzine. I had to translate it from French and there I was, the dentist who plays Marilyn Manson – which wasn’t quite true, but it makes a good story, I guess!”

Since taking over, David has invested heavily in the practice, adding three surgeries, an LDU as well as a conservatory that is used as the waiting room. But it is not just the bricks and mortar that he has spent time and money upgrading. He has made sure that his staff are looked after and that they feel valued. David and the practice itself have picked up many awards over the years – including Dentist of the Year at the Scottish Dental Awards in May – a testament to the high esteem he is held in by his staff.

David’s nomination for the Scottish Dental Award, and his recent nomination for the Best Boss in Britain Award run by Smooth Radio (he made the final 20), have both been surprises sprung on him by his staff.

He said: “When I won the Scottish Dental Award, I made a point of saying that this is a team effort. One individual can’t achieve anything, it’s all about teamwork.

“Both (nominations) were a complete surprise. I must admit, my first impression was embarrassment, but then you think about it for a moment and you realise what it means and how nice it is just to be put up for these awards.

“It’s humbling, you don’t do anything to get awards, you do what you do because you are driven. When people ask me why I do certain things, I tell them it’s because I enjoy them.

“I’ve been a vocational trainer for 12 years, because I love doing it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have hiccups or problems, but, in general, it keeps you young, it keeps you invigorated and it keeps you engaged.”

As well as a VT trainer, David also works for NHS Education Scotland part time, supporting potentially under-performing dentists. He holds mentoring and coaching accreditation and has regularly given evidence and written reports for the GDC.

He said: “It’s a job I find very rewarding, because things can happen to dentists for a whole bunch of reasons. Whether it is home life or developing bad habits – nobody goes to work with the intention for something to go wrong.

“The diversity of problems I have been involved with are quite vast. Often, I am working with dentists that are anything from angry to suicidal, so it is incredibly rewarding when you get through the process with them. You are there as a mentor for them, as someone who is not judging them, just trying to share some of the experience that you have and put in place better processes.”

Whitemoss was also the pilot for the first health promoting dental practice, a Lanarkshire initiative that involved, not just oral health promotion, but general health promotion. Although not directly related, this ties in quite nicely with David’s other passion outside dentistry: his involvement with his beloved Clyde FC.

A third generation supporter, David was introduced to the Bully Wee as a small child and has been following them through thick and thin ever since.

Originally from Rutherglen, the club has something of a nomadic reputation in recent years since moving from Shawfield Stadium – its home since 1898 – in 1986. It ground shared with Partick Thistle and Hamilton before moving to Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld in 1994.

David, who has been the club dentist for many years, joined the board five years ago and, as well as his official role as director of fundraising, has been heavily involved in the ongoing negotiations to move the club to East Kilbride.

He said: “What we realised at the club is that there are three or four serious dental injuries a year – players get knocks, bangs in the head or face etc. Even before I was the club dentist I was getting asked to have a look at a broken tooth and so on.

“Then we realised that there are a few teams, like Chelsea, who actually have a club dentist and there was an opportunity there to get the word out – we’ve always been big on promoting and getting that message out as a practice.”

David explained that although many footballers are clearly conscious of health and fitness, they are often unaware of the importance of dental health to their general health and wellbeing. From the first team down through the various age groups – under-19s, under-17s and u-15s – David gives valuable advice and support on oral health and diet, including the hot topic of sports drinks.

He has also registered a number of players and staff as patients, including the well kent face of Chic Charnley, Clyde’s ebullient assistant manager. He said: “I’ve had a few characters in my chair over the years, including a few ex-Rangers and Celtic players. It’s really nice and it’s fun for me. I now have some really good contacts through the Scottish football world, from people who have been involved in the club at some stage.”

In 2011, to coincide with Mouth Cancer Action Month, David contacted the British Dental Health Foundation and arranged for the club to sponsor the campaign and feature the Blue Ribbon Badge on the home shirt for the duration of the season. The following season, the badge was sported on the away strip, due, in part, to the fact that they would be playing Rangers at Ibrox twice that season and it offered maximum publicity.

He said: “I said to the board that, as a dentist, I am involved in promoting dental health. I have an ethical drive to get the message out there. The demographics were changing and, for the most part, mouth cancer was affecting young men.

“My attitude was, if I can raise awareness by doing something as simple as putting a blue ribbon on the back of a football shirt, then great.”

As a result, David was invited down to Westminster for the launch of the Mouth Cancer Action Month campaign.

So, who would have thought that a chance slip on a classroom floor could lead to a career in dentistry, a mention in an obscure shock rock fanzine and being on the board of the football club he has supported since childhood?

However, while the origins of his career and certain elements of his life have been somewhat unusual, his professional desire, ambition and drive certainly haven’t been.

He said: “I always had this deep ambition to do the best that I could in whatever I did. And that’s what we did here. We decided to change the rules and try to be a wee bit different. And I think we have managed to do that quite well.”

Sport is in the blood

David is married with two budding teenage tennis star daughters, Hayley (17) and Tanya (15). His wife and children are currently living out in Barcelona as they pursue their dreams of careers as professional tennis players. David explained that his youngest has even trained at Sánchez-Casal – the same academy that Andy Murray trained earlier in his career. He said: “When the girls were younger, on numerous occasions, Andy would be on court either before, beside or after them. So, from that period onwards they grew up watching Andy play.”

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