Focus On: The Secret of Self-Education

John West, DDS, MSD


John West, DDS, MSD, focuses on the importance of being at the leading edge of change in dentistry.

Q: Drawing on 4 decades of teaching, you have always identified the No. 1 practice builder as: “The best dental education in the world is your own.” Can you explain how this “self-education” is a critical ingredient for the growth of a value-based practice?

A: I begin the answer with a question that I often ask myself about the future: “Are you prepared?” The only way to be prepared is to prepare. We never truly learn lessons about successful dentistry if someone tells us about his or her own experience with a new product, technique, or equipment. There is nothing like learning the real thing from the real thing: You!

Q: Learning new things has always been important. What is different about today’s dental education?

A: The rate of new knowledge is at the knee of the exponential curve. Like all professions, dentistry is changing at a rate that requires the successful dentist of the future to filter what skill and technology changes are right for his or her practice survival and growth. Are the right decisions being made for my patients and practice health? The only way to know this answer is to find out, and the only way to find out is through self-education. Too much is at stake for us to rely on the truth from any source but our own.

Q: Why is self-education critical to the dentist of the future?

A: In today’s transparent online world, a practice’s vision can be identified in seconds of opening its home page. Patients and our staffs know if we are current, relevant, and provide the very best value-added care. Keeping up with technological shifts requires vigilance and self-testing.

Q: You have written that adaptability is the essential ingredient for the successful dentist of the future. What is the relationship between adaptability and self-education?

A: Self-education is adaptability. Change is not good or bad; it simply is. When change occurs, we can throw in the towel, put on rose-colored glasses, and pretend change is not occurring, or we can adjust our sails. This is what happens in self-education. We adjust our practice sails to benefit from the winds of change.

Q: If I want to set up self-testing in my dental practice, how do I do it?

A: It’s easy! Let’s say you have been hearing about the latest and greatest endodontic file. Every week seems to bring a new file system to the marketplace, claiming promises beyond the promises of competitors. Let’s say the new file claims superior efficiency and does not break. You hear conflicting comments from your colleagues and observe conflicting claims in the trade journals. The reps from different companies also make different claims. A self-education philosophy evokes: “I am going to find out for myself.”

So, you set up a simple self-education system. The key in this example is to make an accurate comparison of your current preferred endodontic file system and the new one that you want to test. Using direct head-to-head comparison, there are 3 simple ways to answer the following question: “Is the new file system (call it X) better for me than my current preferred file system (call it Y)?”

First, you could alternate treatment for every other endodontic patient with X and then Y. For a reliable comparison, you need to treat a reasonable number of patients since every endodontic tooth is different, and some are easier than others. Five patients each for X and Y would be too few in my experience. One hundred is not needed. Most dentists will know if X or Y “is for me” after 10 to 20 endodontic patients, alternating X and Y. (Be sure to follow the directions for use for X and Y, especially the new one!)

Keep accurate records of your X and Y comparison during and after each patient. Comparative categories could include general performance, which file cuts the desired conefit shape, any breakage or unwinding problems, ability to shape a multiple canal tooth with same set of files, how well and easily the file follows the Glidepath, time involved to use X vs Y, etc. Evaluate the categories important to you and your patients. Rate them zero to 10—10 being best and 5 being average. After 10 comparative patients or more, your self-education will be staring you right in the face. You will know your answer!

A second way to compare X and Y is to use only X in one operatory, and only Y in another, for the 10 to 20 patients. This works if you are treating a similar number of endodontic patients in 2 different operatories. When you find yourself wishing you had the file system that is in the other operatory, your self-education is complete! You have discovered your preference for X or Y.

The third way to compare is to treat all endodontic patients for one week with X, and then treat all patients for one week with Y. Compare your notes. The needed evidence will jump right out at you!

Q: Do you have any closing advice about self-education?

A: Like all fields, dentistry is changing at lightning speed. The future is coming at us point blank. The only way to survive and thrive in the next 20 years of dentistry is to know what’s happening, to adapt to what’s happening, and to participate in the changes. I would return to my opening question: “Are you prepared?”

In summary, the best way to prepare for your dental future is to be open to all that is new, to self-test all that is new, and to be at the leading edge of change. Adapt through the secret of self-education, and you will never be left behind.

Dr. West received his DDS from the University of Washington, where he is an affiliate professor. He is the founder and director of the Center for Endodontics in Tacoma, Wash, and a clinical instructor at Boston University, where he earned his MSD and was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Dr. West and his 2 sons, Drs. Jason and Jordan West, are in private endodontic practice in Tacoma. He can be reached via email at

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