We can see you now, virtually

From a passion ignited in a Canadian fishing village to an idea formed on Wall Street, a virtual consultation platform designed in Aberdeen is now being adopted around the world

15 June, 2020 / indepth
 Will Peakin  

To say that Gregor McPherson’s journey to becoming a dentist – aged 30 – was unusual, is an understatement. “I didn’t really enjoy school,” he recalls. “I was dyslexic at a time when it was regarded as an ‘excuse’ rather than a reason.” Gregor studied photography at Aberdeen College, worked behind the bar at a local music venue and became duty manager before holding various other positions in the hospitality industry.

He then decided to do a degree in Environmental Management at Newcastle University and went on to join a consultancy in the city. “I was mainly involved in environmental and quality management systems as well
as writing corporate social responsibility reports,” he said. “It was as boring as it sounds.”

Gregor was restless: “After a year, I really felt like I needed a change in my life, so I moved to Canada. I spent the winter in Banff, Alberta and the summer working as a chef in a small fishing village called Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. It was while living in a motel there that I just woke up one day and decided I wanted to be a dentist.” Why? “I know that sounds a little strange but that’s what happened. It sounded interesting and I wanted a job where I could help people,” he said, matter-of-factly.

It’s nicer for the patient if they can talk face-to-face before meeting in surgery, especially if we are going to be wearing something that resembles a biohazard suit!

“After the summer I moved back to the UK, took a job as a delivery driver for Fedex and started the application process. It took me two years to get into dental school and during that time I spent the summers driving for Fedex, living at home with my mum and saving up money to go to school.

“I love the snow and the first winter during my application process I moved to Chamonix in France. The second winter I spent in a place called Fernie, back in the Canadian Rockies. I remember finding out I had been accepted into Glasgow Dental School while standing in a snow-covered car park in Canada on a pay phone to my mum. I didn’t have a computer with me and had to get her to log into my email from the UK as the local internet café was closed for the day.” 

After a shaky start on graduating – “I had the misfortune of working for a self-proclaimed narcissist” – he got a job at a busy NHS practice. “The team was great, and we had an excellent practice manager.” But then it was bought over and within a year only one of the original staff remained; it left Gregor with a low opinion of corporates’ status within the profession.

Now he works at Thistle Dental in Aberdeen. “The team is brilliant; very supportive and knowledgeable, and it has reignited my passion for dentistry” he said. The Principal is Vikram Kavi, an acknowledged technophile whose practice was one of the first in the UK to use a CEREC Primescan. More recently, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vikram and his fellow clinicians created a 3D-printed mask for key workers across the region who were struggling to access PPE.

So, where did the idea for Talk To A Dentist come from? “Early last year, my wife Erica and I went on a short holiday to New York. She was expecting our first child in July. During that time, I was trying to figure out a way I could spend more time at home with baby Connor and
still have an income.

“Two things happened on that holiday that lead to the idea. I remember sitting on the subway going through Wall Street. I love people-watching and was mesmerised by the countless businesspeople on their phones. I started thinking about whether it was easy to get a dentist in New York, how expensive it would be, and how they would find the time to go? 

“I don’t know if this happens to every dentist but certainly when I go out and meet new people, as soon as they find out I’m a dentist, they inevitably ask me a dental-related question. This was the case with the concierge at our hotel. That same day I got chatting with him and as soon as he found out I was a dentist he started asking me lots of questions about his teeth. He was very thankful of the information I gave him. 

“Eureka! The idea for Talk To A dentist was formed.”

Gregor began work last year and after six months had a proof of concept. He established it on social media and immediately people from around the world began to get in touch. “Initially, the idea was for me to carry out video consultations,” he said. “But, when the pandemic happened, we adapted the system so that other dentists could use it as well. We now have a very sophisticated online consultation system that incorporates an appointment book, sends out reminders to you and the patient and can be monetised.

“The online consultation rooms use high-definition video that can be recorded and stored for clinical records. There is also a whiteboard system so both you and the patient can share information and annotate it in real time. It is peer-to-peer, so no downloads or updates are needed. The system is accessed by a simple link, which is automatically emailed to the patient and one click later they are taken to your virtual waiting room. You are then notified they are there. There is even a chat feature, so if you are running late you can message the patient to let them know how long you will be. It can also be branded with your practice logo.”

Before the pandemic, what was the reaction within the profession? “Very much mixed,” said Gregor. “Some people understood the concept whereas others just couldn’t get past the idea that you don’t always need to stick your hands in a person’s mouth to conduct a successful consultation!”

But, clearly, the pandemic has changed everything. “I personally feel that every practice needs to embrace teledentistry. It is a very powerful tool that, if used correctly, will improve safety, the patient’s journey, and will save you time and money,” said Gregor.

“As a profession, it looks like we are going to need to use some form of advanced PPE and spend more time cleaning surgeries in between patients. If this is the case, then it’s a bit of a no-brainer that being able to reduce chair time by talking to the patient remotely first would be a useful asset. It’s also much nicer for the patient if they can talk to you face-to-face before meeting them in surgery, especially if we are going to have to meet them wearing something that resembles a biohazard suit!”

With the platform established, Gregor and his colleagues are now looking at ways to increase the conversion rate of people visiting healthcare websites and booking appointments including an artificially intelligent ‘chat bot’ that can interact with a visitor to a practice’s site, providing relevant information and offer options to book a call, a video consultation, or treatment. The platform can also manage a practice’s social media, reviews and website design.

It is not without competitors and the corporates are also beginning to integrate teledentistry into their existing software. The NHS has also opened its Attend Anywhere platform to registered practices. “We believe we are ahead of our rivals,” said Gregor. “But we’re also not limiting ourselves to teledentistry. We’re evolving as a company, looking at ways to use new media solutions to improve the healthcare industry. We have a private investor at the moment and potential partnerships are in the pipeline.”

For more information, see: https://talktoadentist.co.uk/video-client-consultation-service-for-dentists/

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