The perils of wilful blindness

15 August, 2019 / management

Open your eyes, practice a bit of self-honesty and self-awareness to re-energise yourself and your practising career

Wilful blindness is defined as, “a term used in law to describe a situation in which a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping himself or herself unaware of facts that would render him or her liable”. I am going to stretch the definition to include wilful ignorance, which includes situations where people deliberately turn their attention away from ethical, business and other problems because the effort of facing up to making a decision is too much for them.

It has also been described as Nelsonian Knowledge, because of Admiral Nelson’s reaction to signals suggesting that he end an action and retreat during the Battle of Copenhagen. Famously, he held a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I see no ships”, continued the action and won the battle.

More recent examples include the Catholic Church, and the banks involved in the sub-prime mortgage business. We are all familiar with procrastinating politicians “kicking the can down the road” or “into the long grass”.

In dentistry and other businesses, ‘wilful blindness’ can manifest itself as a reluctance to change even in the face of evidence. We know what worked in the past will not always work in the future but often people and organisations seem to persist. A favourite saying is, “People will not make changes until the pain of not making a change is greater than the pain
of changing.” 

Examples often quoted are the manufacturers involved in the wagon and carriage industry as the age of the motor car blossomed. The carriage makers suffered but the carriage parts makers often transitioned successfully. The Timken Company made roller bearings and adapted their products easily. On the other hand, of the 40 or so manufacturers of whips, tools and carriage parts in the town of Westfield, only one survived.

Often, because teaching reflects older experiences and the status quo, students are given a potentially outdated view of the world of work they are joining. Occasionally, I am aware that the opposite can be the case, in some subjects cutting- edge techniques might be taught which have not been adopted by the mainstream.

The Gaussian distribution curve of people’s adoption of new ideas shows that the innovators are 2.5 per cent, the early adopters 13.5 per cent and the early majority 34 per cent of a population (dentists included). The remaining 50 per cent comprises the late adopters and the laggards. In more simple terms, as Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame said, “There are people who make things happen, people who watch things happen and people who wonder, ‘what happened?’”

The real and potential applications of digital technology in dentistry have already seen the innovators and early adopters stretch away from the rest. The early majority will soon join in, but the other 50 per cent risk being left far behind as the changes are rapid and the required investment of both time and money is considerable. Stay in the rear and you run the risk of being dropped from the race. 

Success will come to those who not only deliver what their existing patients want, but also anticipate what they can offer to their patients that is not currently available. Look at the success of removable aligners, facial aesthetics and minimal intervention techniques. It would have taken a brave man or woman to have backed those just
a decade or two ago. 

Writing in *The Journal of mHealth, Dr Aalok Y Shukla says that modern dentistry has two parts:

Psychosocial dimension: Feeling happy with your smile – orthodontics, prosthodontics and cosmetic dentistry.

Health dimension: No disease in the mouth, gum disease, tooth decay, endodontics, jaw pain, oral cancer.

  • He anticipates that the future solution will have three elements:
  • Continuous digital monitoring of oral health for early detection of disease.
  • Preventive, interceptive and reparative home solutions.
  • Clinical minimally invasive reparative, regenerative and enhancing solutions.
  • As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a’changin’.”

The usual excuses of dentists including, “My patients won’t pay”, “I’m too close to retirement”, and “I’ll wait a few years for the price to come down” no longer wash. With the growth of practices and more aggressive marketing, patient expectations are increasing rapidly and the consumerist genie is out of the bottle. If you don’t provide the service then expect your patients to vote with their feet and find someone who will cater for their needs. 

The patrician era of “doctor knows best” is long gone and has been replaced by one where the patient does their homework and expects the best. 

Wilfully blind behaviour will lead to your practising life becoming stifled, stagnant and stultified. Open your eyes, practice a bit of self-honesty and self-awareness to re-energise yourself and your practising career.


Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career, he now works as a coach, consultant, trouble-shooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others’ successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.

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