A golden celebration 

Posted on 7th July 2020

Half a century in a profession is an outstanding achievement. We spoke to Dr Patrick Colgan AM on the eve of his 50 years of service 

After 50 years in a profession, it seems fitting to go back to the start. 

From a family of mainly farmers, bureaucrats and teachers, it is clear Patrick Colgan was not expected to become a dentist. Patrick says it was an intriguing aunty, a registered nurse, who first influenced him to do something different. Although finally, it was his family dentist who made all the difference. 

“My dentist was a fabulous gentleman by the name of Ted Edmondsen,” Patrick recalls. “As a kid, no one wanted to go to the dentist, but it was a joy going to him. He always included me: for instance, if he was working on something in the lab, he would invite me to observe what he was doing. Subsequently, when I started studying dentistry, he gave me old textbooks. some dentures and tools of the trade. 

“I was really drawn to the multifaceted nature of dentistry – it was knowledge based, required you to study and had technical challenges,” he adds. “It was also a beneficial service to others, and, at the same time, offered some independence. At that stage, nearly all dentists were solo practitioners, so you were your own small business. I think I chose well.” 

Reflecting on his early years in dentistry, Patrick says, he was lucky enough to enter the profession during a golden era. “Post-war affluence in the community had led to a more processed diet and social freedoms which in turn led to rampant dental disease. At the same time there was a shortage of registered dentists to deal with this. There was also a surge of interest in oral health. Research was taking place around the world to expand our knowledge and our techniques. And, equipment was improving exponentially. 

We were also fortunate to have a great educator as our Dean. The late Professor KJG Sutherland was acutely aware of the challenge he faced in converting these young men and women into fledgling professionals in only five years (the short course!). While we did not all appreciate it at the time, his balance between oldschool discipline easing to emerging self-reliance was a key element of our education.  

“One of the great things for a young graduate at that time was the generous cohort of senior dentists in the profession who were eager to share their knowledge. We had no hesitation in ringing a senior dentist with a query. It was a fabulous supportive environment for a young dentist.  

A case in point here, I noticed that Dr Ted Adler was recently awarded an Order of Australia. Dr Adler, a leading oral surgeon at the time, would never turn down helping a young dentist who had an issue with a difficult extraction. 

Fluoridation was also on the horizon. “Some of our senior lecturers were leading the charge to have fluoride added to our water supply. So as students, we were well versed on the benefits of fluoridation. It was the silver bullet to defeat decay. Dentists were suddenly being seen in a different light; the profession driving the case for prevention, even at the threat to their own livelihood.  

If we jump forward 50 years, we come to the point where, within some sections of the community, we have largely controlled dental disease and can therefore offer gold standard treatment and care. 

“But (and this is a big but) there are still major sectors of the community with dental disease that resembles the devastation of 50 years ago. This is deeply worrying, and the profession could once again become activists driving for change. 

In addition to his day-to-day work as a dentist, Patrick has enjoyed his role within with the Australian Dental Association – not only as a past ADAWA president, but as the first WA graduate to become Federal President of the ADA. 

“It was a great honour,” Patrick says. “While it was a very busy period, it was challenging and exciting. I gained a great deal and met a multitude of clever and really committed people. We can’t help but learn from people like that. It’s a privilege.” 

As well as his commitment to practice and to the ADA, Patrick has been a long-time supporter of Fremantle’s St Patrick’s Community Support Centre and is Chairman of the Board of Management. For Patrick, giving back is a priority. 

“I believe volunteering provides an opportunity for us to work with those that the 50 years have left behind,” he explains. “It provides us the chance to make a difference. It is also a great moment for reflection. 

Patrick was awarded an Order of Australia for his contribution to the community.  

When asked his career highlights over the past 50 years, Patrick says number one is unquestionably the trust, the loyalty and the friendship that has been accorded him by three-plus generations of patients. “This was best expressed by a patient, an otherwise quite demure person, who sent me a card at the time of my retirement, which read: ‘You dirty rat. You said you would not retire until I died’,” he laughs. 

“The second highlight would be the loyalty, dedication and ‘patient-focus’ of my long-serving staff I could not have managed without their support. They were always reliable and fully committed; an intrinsic part of my entire career.” 

As well as the highs, Patrick acknowledges the significant challenges facing the profession. “The pendulum has swung from an inadequate workforce to an oversupply of dental practitioners,” he says. “That growth in manpower, in the face of greatly reduced prevalence of disease, particularly in the group that actually seeks care, is of concern.” He adds that other substantial issues include staff management, corporatisation, and consumer power.  

Turning his focus to recent graduates as the future of dentistry, Patrick realises there is a lot of hard work, cost and commitment involved in becoming a dentist. 

Graduating and registering as a dentist is just the beginning.

“No matter all the work you have done, it is an honour to provide knowledgeable, competent, appropriate oral health care and oversight for your patients. It’s important to be true to the basic values of honesty, integrity, and loyalty. This has stood the test of time and will stand true into the future.” 

He provides the following advice for young dentists:

  1. Advise and treat your patients according to their needs and means and not your overdraft. 
  2. Maintain your knowledge and competencies to ensure your advice and treatment is current and appropriate. 
  3. If you join into any third-party provider contracts, be they Government, run by employers or health funds, the patients’ entitlements under the agreement are just that – they are entitlements, not a treatment plan.
  4. Join and participate in the association. You may not realise it, but you have unique qualities, unique skills, and unique perspectives. Let others benefit from your outlook, your commitment and your passion. Positively influence the entire profession and really make a difference!

Dr Patrick Colgan will be receiving his 50-year membership badge at the July 8 General Meeting at ADA House.