The heights of success

17 June, 2019 / indepth
 Tim Power  

Ken Scoular’s passion for learning and training and his love of often hair-raising adventure have contributed to a lifetime of inspiring leadership. His lasting legacy to the dental profession across Scotland has now been honoured 

Ken Scoular thrives on a challenge. From running his own practice a year out of university and overseeing the multimillion-pound development of three dental centres in Scotland, to rescuing people off mountains and bombing down the terrifying Cresta toboggan run in Switzerland, this modest man seems to take it all in his stride. However, he was a bit overwhelmed when he found out that his peers in the dental profession had honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Dental Awards.

His first job at 16 was as a ‘bin man’ for Wishaw Cleansing Department, but he was persuaded to consider going to university.

If you are not living on the edge then you are using far too much space

Ken Scoular

Ken said: “I thought about medicine, dentistry and law, but I decided on dentistry as there was always a practical side to my nature. I like to help people, make things and, more importantly, dismantle them and put them back together again. I thought dentistry would be ideal.”

This hands-on approach has served him well throughout his life, but he said it’s his strong belief in the need to continually learn and educate that is behind his success, and he firmly believes that in order to manage continuous change over the decades, you have to embrace new technologies and continually upskill yourself and your team. Ken has a passion to pass on his experiences to others, particularly those new to the profession. 

He jokes that his leadership in dentistry was developed at the University of Glasgow organising dances, Field Day and lobbying the Dean and the university for more entertainment facilities in the dentist student common room, but he also has a natural drive and taste for adventure and learning at the same time: as shown during his elective in the summer of 1975 when hitchhiked from New York to Florida University to study under Harold Stanley, then probably the world’s “number one endodontist”. He had to sleep rough for a while when he ran out of money, had a run-in with the local police, and ended up staying in a trailer park for the rest of his stay with a couple of Puerto Ricans. 

He said his passion for learning and training was forged in Kettering, Northamptonshire, the location of his first professional job as a dentist in 1976. Ken explained: “I decided to move to Kettering because the dentist who owned the practice had an FDS and was medically qualified and I thought that would be a good learning environment. However, on the first morning he announced to me that he was off to train as a consultant and left me to it. He said he would come around on Wednesday night to see how I was getting on!”

This did not faze Ken and three months later he was given the option to lease the practice, with an option to buy a year later, which he did.

He said: “The whole thing was a steep learning curve, and looking back I should have walked out as there was no peer support, but I carried on. This experience, a sum total of my failures and near misses, moulded me into being a strong supporter of peer support and VT Training schemes.” 

Ken got married to Anne in 1978 and, as they both share a love of adventure sports such as hill climbing and scuba diving, they were often travelling far at the weekends to either the Lake District or the south coast. After five years in Kettering they decided to find a place in Britain where they could both work and enjoy their leisure time without too much travelling. 

Ever practical, Ken got out a map to decide where to go. He explained: “On the map of Britain I drew blue circles where I’d like to live and Anne drew hers in red, and where they intersected was where we agreed to set up a new dental practice.”

In 1982 they moved to Fort William, taking over a practice that had been established in 1920s with a large patient base that looked after people of the town as well as crofters and people from the islands and further afield.

Ken said: “The West Highlands then was quite a culture shock compared with England, as some of our island or remote and rural patients would have to travel up to six hours to see us, so we had to be flexible around appointments.”

He enjoyed his work and team in Fort William and also his life in the region which allowed him to complete all 284 Munros in 1989 and join the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team where was a member for 28 years, winning two medals as well as Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.

It was in 1996, and 20 years into his career, that he felt he was getting rusty academically. He explained: “I was beginning to realise that I didn’t know it all and it was time for a major revision of my knowledge and skill base, so I started a study group of dentists in Fort William and Oban to increase our knowledge of dental developments. We’d invite speakers, such as hospital consultants, to come up to talk with us and hold CPD for the whole dental team, not just the dentists – it was whole team education and that was ahead of the game then.”

Thirst for learning

Enthused by his renewed thirst for learning, Ken went down to sit his MFGDP at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1998, but he nearly bottled out. He explained: “I remember walking around outside the college three times wondering whether I should go in and sit the exam. But in the anteroom, I had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment and I realised that I was actually pretty bright and on top of my evidence and saw myself in a new light. It gave me a new confidence and I walked it.”

After merging his practice with another provider, Gregor Muir, in Fort William so they could share resources and combine their practice strengths, to form M&S Dental Care. Ken saw the opportunity to take a bigger role in education when he applied for the CPD tutor job for NHS Education for Scotland in Inverness. Not even the mould-strewn portacabin he was given as his office could dampen his enthusiasm for promoting learning opportunities to others.

He said this was a satisfying role: “My job was to organise Section 63 education so I could fly top-notch speakers up from London for dental professionals from the health boards. At the beginning it meant people gathering in one place for the CPD, but later on in 2007 we had video conferencing, which increased our reach to dentists throughout the region. We covered a wide range of subjects from endodontics, decontamination and cosmetic dentistry to the mysteries of bonding, which was fairly new back then.” 

He was not only helping people learn but also benefitting from education himself when he enrolled on the BUOLD (Bristol University Open Learning for Dentists) DGDP programme on dental business management. He said: “Within two years of completing the course and applying what we had learned at the practice we had become debt free, which shows the real benefit of education. 

“Funnily enough, in 2010 I was asked back to BUOLD to be a guest lecturer and within six months I was running the business management scheme for dentists, and I did this for six years.”

In 2002 he also took up the role of Dental Practice Advisor (DPA) for NHS Highland, but he had to drop his DPA governance work when in 2005 when he was appointed Director of Dental Postgraduate Education at a time when the Government was funding big changes in dentistry to enable greater access for treatment.

Ken said: “The Government’s Dental Action Plan included building 20 new dental centres around Scotland and I was in involved in the design and the project management of the Stornoway Dental Centre, Dumfries Dental Centre and the Centre of Health Science in Inverness.

“They had facilities for dental students and dental therapists to be trained and educated while they also provided dental care for the public. 

“The major challenge was to get them opened on time. It was very hands on, and I went around the building sites on a weekly basis. It was totally different experience, but it was great. I’ve always been very practical, and I can plumb, wire and do joinery as I built my own extension myself. 

“The Inverness Dental Centre, which was a collaboration between three universities and two health boards, was the jewel in the crown. It had a huge footprint of glass and light, 22 dental chairs for outreach and therapy training, phantom head rooms, lecture theatres, rooms for resuscitation training. It was a roaring success, and all opened on time without any glitches in 2006. 

“After that I was given new tasks developing the remote and rural fellowships, developing courses for practice managers and vocational training for dental therapists, plus taking part in the managing of the centre, but I still kept up my clinical practice in Fort William, on a Monday. 

“You get a lot of respect when you are working as a dental director and you are still running a very successful practice.”

He believes this respect helped him in his role in TRaMS (Training, Revision and Mentoring Support) providing remediation training for dental professionals who have had a complaint lodged against them.

He said: “I had many colleagues who had worked for 20-30 years with totally unblemished careers and these GDC complaints came out of the blue. It can have a dramatic effect on them so it’s good to have someone who is experienced in the profession just to talk things over. I believe in the golden rule of reciprocity – treat people the way you like to be treated yourself – and I believe we’ve helped a lot of people through the TRaMS process.”

Ken has contributed much to the profession outside his paid employment, a BDA Chairman in the Highlands and Islands, serving nearly a decade on both the National Dental Advisory Committee and the SDCEP. More recently, he has been extensively involved with the Dental Faculty of the RCPSG in Glasgow.

Widespread legacy

Introducing him at the Scottish Dental Awards, Jim Hall from Clyde Munro, told the audience that Ken’s legacy is widespread. He said: “Ken’s Remote and Rural education strategy paper published in 2003 proved to be the road map for future remote and rural development, and I believe his input into the design of dental section of the new Centre for Health Science in Inverness was one of his greatest achievements – it is widely regarded as one of the finest dental education centres in Scotland. 

“As NES Director, he managed the TRaMS scheme for the training and support of colleagues in difficulty and it was so successful that its processes were adopted nationally, and this is another example of his professional legacy.”

Another one of Ken’s other maxims is: “If you are not living on the edge then you are using up far too much space”. He’s shown this ethos in both the challenges he has taken up in his professional career and also in his personal life; from climbing the 450ft Old Man of Hoy sea stack (twice) to running the infamous Glen Nevis River Race, now closed because of safety concerns!

Although he retired in 2014, he’s still very active, enjoying long-distance cycling in Vietnam, New Zealand and Europe, as well as Canadian canoeing nearer home along the Dee, Tay and Spey rivers. He’s still passionate about learning and boasts a bus pass and two student cards: one for the University of Glasgow for studying Italian; and the other at Glasgow City College learning all about patisserie and Cordon Bleu cooking.

Accepting his award, Ken thanked his teams and peers for their help and support over the years and said the award was a joint achievement. 

His final message was: “Build, develop and trust your teams; figure out the future and have a plan for your life; and finally, don’t forsake your education and developing new skills. It provides improved patient care… and, in my case, improved Italian and cooking skills!”

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Tags: Ken Scoular / Lifetime Achievement / Scottish Dental Awards / SD Awards

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