Big picture thinking

Dr. Barry Schwartz
By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

Hey Schwartzy, are you having fun yet?

It’s a question that, as a dental student, Dr. Barry Schwartz would hear from his mentor, Dr. Paul Morgan. “I’d be up to my elbows in a surgery or a procedure and he’d ask me this,” said Dr. Schwartz. “He did so to help keep me balanced and in a positive frame of mind – and I needed that.”

It’s not all Dr. Morgan did for Dr. Schwartz.

As a role model, Dr. Morgan demonstrated the ‘bests’ of dentistry for the young student. From communicating effectively and dealing with patients fairly to maintaining optimism; he exemplified what being professional looked like to the young student. “He lit a candle for me,” said Dr. Schwartz.

Today, as an assistant professor teaching more than 100 hours of classes at Schulich Dentistry, he’s sharing all he learned from Dr. Morgan and so much more. 

What Dr. Schwartz began nearly 14 years ago at Schulich Dentistry – with just three hours of classes focused on ethics and professionalism, communication, and dental jurisprudence – has developed into a full program with four courses offered to students in each of the four years of their dental education.

The curriculum, which is unique to Schulich Dentistry, aims to enhance the students’ education so that they will become well-rounded dental professionals. It’s progressive and integrated, with each year building on the learnings from the previous year while incorporating other aspects of the curriculum.

The courses have been designed to reflect where the students are with the rest of the studies, and whether or not they are engaging with patients and other health care professionals.

“When I arrive in the classroom on the first day of the first class in Year One, I ask the students to put their pens down, power down their laptops, open their minds, and start thinking,” said Dr. Schwartz.

He challenges these future dentists to begin to think more critically – something that doesn’t happen overnight for everyone.

The first-year course is introductory, and the goal is for students to begin applying critical thinking to different situations. The course offers the future dentists the opportunity to undertake three projects that involve real situations connected to the practice of dentistry, to study an ethics case, and to write a personal journal.

In one such project, students are challenged to consider how an action by a dental professional outside of the office may damage the reputation of the profession as a whole. This year, the first- year class wrote about the mainstream and social media storm around Cecil the lion, who was hunted and killed by a dentist.

Building on this, in second year, students focus on more specific subjects such as informed consent.

By third year, ethics and communication theory comes to life for students, as they are now interacting directly with patients in the clinic on a regular basis.

Additionally, themes such as dentists in society, dentists as colleagues and dental research are explored. And lecture topics focus on access to care, standards of care, dealing with error, and applied communications, to name a few.

The subjects of ethics and communications are integrated with regulations and guidelines affecting dental practice in the final year of study. Small group discussions take place covering topics such as the ethical treatment of staff and colleagues, boundary issues and advertising and marketing. Mean-while, through standardized patient workshops, students practise encounters that bring to light legal responsibilities and communication dilemmas in challenging scenarios.

“When I see the students having an ‘aha’ moment and really starting to see the big picture, that’s the greatest reward for me.” —Dr. Barry Schwartz

Dr. Schwartz gives credit to the School for adapting the curriculum to include these courses. “The School and Western are very progressive, and we’ve had some amazing deans who have been extremely supportive of this programming,” he said.

It’s been a rewarding process for Dr. Schwartz to have been part of creating a new component to the program. It’s even more satisfying to watch the growth of his students. “When I see the students having an ‘aha’ moment and really starting to see the big picture, that’s the greatest reward for me,” he said.

Getting to today, as a professor, bioethicist and educator has been an interesting journey for Dr. Schwartz.

From the age of 12, Dr. Schwartz knew he wanted to be a dentist. But at age 49, he was forced to leave his practice due to the development of an essential tremor.

His own dental education experience and the valuable mentorship and learnings about ethics and professionalism from Dr. Paul Morgan became even more important when he considered his next step.

With a keen interest in bioethics, he knew that completing a master’s degree was the right road to take. As part of his studies, he worked with Dr. David Banting to develop the ethics course at Schulich Dentistry.

Today, he’s leading the country with this unique curriculum.

Dr. Schwartz’s dedication to his students and enthusiasm for this curriculum is palpable. He believes he probably gets just as much out of the program as the students.

The best part is that he’s still having fun.