Dr. Michael Norton strives for perfection, but he settles for excellence. It permeates everything he does, from the treatment of patients in his London clinic to his role as President of the Academy of Osseointegration (AO) or moderator for the World Summit Tour. In an exclusive interview, Dr. Norton shares his experiences from his 30 years in the profession and talks about what inspires him to constantly grow and develop and why the perfection of the cosmos blows his mind.
The clock has just struck 6 pm. The last patient of the day has just left the clinic with a new implant-supported crown – “It looks fantastic” says the patient – and Dr. Michael Norton sits down at the desk in his office. From the small refrigerator, he picks up a bottle of San Pellegrino. Today’s third.
“I am a sparkling kind of guy,” says Dr. Norton with a wry smile as he unscrews the cap. The Italian sparkling water is actually the only nutrition he has gotten today. This morning, he didn’t even get his usual cup of coffee. And somehow, this is a symbolic representation of Michael Norton
Let’s start by clarifying one thing right away: he is a very busy man. Busy, but not stressed. This Tuesday he arrived at his downtown London clinic at about 8.15 am, as usual. He started the morning by getting his youngest son, the only one of the three sons still living at home, ready for school. Then off for the daily service at the synagogue, which he generally visits every morning, and afterwards straight to the clinic.
“At the office I hit the ground running. I start on the computer, checking e-mails. The first patient normally arrives at 9 o’clock and basically, we see patients, without a break, from 9 am to 5 pm.”
When the last patient leaves, silence re-enters the office and Dr. Michael Norton closes the working day by doing all the other stuff – collecting data, writing articles, reading expert reports, creating presentations and answering e-mails – before he lands at home a few hours later.
This is how the weekdays normally look for Dr. Norton. But in addition to his intensive pace of work at the clinic, he also travels the world as a highly appreciated and renowned lecturer, visits events and congresses, participates in research programs and, over the past year, he has served as the scientific moderator at the Tokyo, San Diego and Nice stops of the Dentsply Sirona Implants World Summit Tour. And as a jewel in his work crown, this past year he has held the position of President of AO, the first non-American to do so.
In short, Dr Michael Norton is a global superstar in implant dentistry. A hard-working superstar.
“But this is important: I do not think I’m addicted to my job. I am devoted to my family and my friends, to my community and my extended family. If I am a workaholic, it is in the sense that I work to live, I don’t live to work. I’m simply very lucky to love my job. ”
Michael Norton takes another sip of his San Pellegrino. The phrase “global superstar” is delivered with an ironic wink, although it is the doctor himself who playfully introduced the phrase.
“I am not a prima donna. There are a lot of prima donnas in the industry. But it makes me laugh, because this is a tiny business, and even if you really are a global superstar within the profession – to the rest of the world, you are a complete unkown.
He illustrates the argument with an example:
“What Professor Brånemark has done for humankind is fantastic and it is natural that people virtually worshipped this ground-breaking professor, let’s be clear about that. But just imagine that he’s on the stage giving a presentation, and on the sideline Paul McCartney suddenly strolls in, or Elton John, someone with real fame, real influence, someone who has a profound impact in a more entertaining way like musicians and artists. In such a case, I think people would very quickly be distracted away from Professor Brånemark. And he’s the biggest and most famous of the lot. So, when I am out globe-trotting and everybody wants to shake your hand or take your photograph, you do feel like a superstar in your own little world. It’s a lovely feeling but I am realistic about it, I’m just another clinician doing my job.”
It is, however, hard to become more famous in implant dentistry than by serving as President of the AO, one of the most respected organizations in the industry. This prestigious position is even more remarkable when there is an Englishman sitting on the throne as the 31st President.
“Coming from the UK and becoming a globally renowned name, especially in the field of implant dentistry, is not very likely.. I am happy to play my part but I do find it remarkable to find myself in that position. AO … that’s the pinnacle of peer acceptance. I feel quite humble.”
AO might be a high point in Dr. Michael Norton’s career. At least so far. Still, the career could have ended before it even began. Implant dentistry – or dentistry at all –as a profession and career was far from obvious to the young Michael. However, as far back as he can remember, surgery was close to Michael Norton’s heart.
“Even from a very young age I always wanted to cut things up. So, I was destined to be either an axe murderer or a surgeon,” he says with another wry smile!
“I have this profound fascination with everything in the natural world and the cosmos. Biology fascinated me, chemistry intrigued me, and somewhere in all that fascination was this yearning to look under the skin. I was dissecting frogs. Getting my mother to buy sheep hearts from the butcher so I could cut them open.”
In addition, Michael Norton grew up in an era when the first heart transplant was performed, so the fact that surgery was high on his wish list was quite natural.
“But I was not a naturally gifted pupil. As a result, I did not get into medical school. ”
Instead, it was a neighbor who persuaded Michael to look into the idea of dentistry.
“Apart from my father, one of the most influential men in my life was my neighbor.
He was a dentist. We used to talk a lot and perform dissections together. One day he asked if I wanted to visit his practice, so I went there, and a week turned into four months. I totally and utterly fell in love with dentistry. I understood that cutting a tooth was a kind of surgery. And people were equally in dread, equally grateful for the treatment.”
He applied for dental school and the journey began. It was during his fourth year at school that an old temptation made its return.
“That’s when you start to do oral surgery, and suddenly blood came back into my life. I realized then that it was surgery that I was longing for.”
Michael received an offer to go back to medical school to become a maxillofacial surgeon. However, he turned down the offer, in pursuit of a more immediate career, a move he has never regretted. Because, unknown to the young surgeon, there was a new technology just around the corner that was about to explode.
“I was introduced to implants. And I was totally blown away by this new technology which was amazing.
So, I called around to London dental schools to see if someone was doing clinical trials.”
Finally, he got a seat at the Royal London Hospital, became involved in clinical trials – and was hooked. And things got even better. Because soon he became involved in a clinical trial from a Swedish medical company called Astra Meditech. Astra hadn’t become a commercial product yet, but they needed a full-time English clinician and Michael Norton wanted to absorb himself entirely with implants.
It was the perfect fit – and right there and then started one of the longest collaborations in implant dentistry. In the early years, Michael Norton was involved in all parts of the business, from R&D to copywriting brochures and selling (he actually sold the first ever kit in the world).
“It was like a small family, both internally and among the customers. We were true pioneers, it was great.”
However, after a few years his craving to treat patients resurfaced and in the mid-’90s Dr. Norton opened his London clinic – and continued to work as a contracted advisor to Astra Meditech, which is now Dentsply Sirona Implants.
“A lot of colleagues have switched companies and brands over the years, but I am still here. The incredible thing about Astra Tech is that in 1991, when we launched, this implant was so far ahead of its time that that implant design is still state-of-the-art today. It’s true to say that nobody on the planet has been using the Astra Tech implant longer than I have. It’s my baby.”
Everyone who has heard Dr. Michael Norton lecture or lead a debate knows his passion, curiosity and charisma in the room. It is an impressive ability to maintain such a driving force and appetite for the profession, even after 30 years. So, the question is, what drives Michael Norton?
“Most importantly, I don’t want to be on my deathbed and think that I didn’t make a significant contribution and difference. For a lot of clinicians, treating patients gives them sufficient satisfaction, and I totally get that. But for me that wasn’t enough. I felt that I wanted to make a contribution to my profession which is why by the age of 30 I had already published a textbook.”
“My contribution is also about participating in research projects, traveling the world and spreading knowledge, my commitment to AO and so on. All these things hopefully contribute to the march of progress and will make life better for all patients in the end.”
It is also the results that inspire him to constantly develop.
“I get inspired by good results. One lecturer at the World Summit Tour in San Diego said something that I felt was very inspirational. He said: ‘We strive for perfection, but we settle for excellence’. I think that is an absolutely fabulous quote because that is what I am aiming for every day. You must be inspired by the results you deliver. And when I see superlative bone response to the implant or when I see fabulous soft tissue response to the abutment – that’s what inspires me.”
But Dr. Michael Norton also gets his inspiration outside the clinic.
“I have always been absorbed by studying the cosmos. I am fascinated by the vastness of it all, the perfection of it all. No matter how hard the Stephen Hawkings of this world try, they have so far failed to come up with the Theory of Everything. And the bigger the telescope, the smaller the microscope, the further and smaller we see, the more questions become evident and remain unanswered and I love that. You never get to the end. And maybe you never get to the end because you need something else, which I call faith. What I do know for sure is that the perfection of the cosmos cannot have happened randomly. It is just too perfect, beyond comprehension. I don’t know what level of inspiration that is but it just blows my mind.”
Several times during our conversation, Michael Norton returns to the subject of his patients. He talks about the importance of helping people in the long term, about trust and confidence. All patients should be able to trust both the clinician’s knowledge and the products used. It’s an interplay. For this reason, Michael Norton is very skeptical about products in the industry that lack sufficient documentation, science and evaluation.
“Trust is the currency. Each implant should have at least five years of controlled data and documentation. It will not happen, but it should be that way. Just like a lot of my colleagues, I’ve spent far too many hours removing poor-quality implants that have no right being in a patient. People who pay little attention to science, literature and documentation are the very same who buy cheap implants.”
And a scientifically proven and well-documented solution also creates confidence, of course.
“You can’t be confident in your practice if you’re not confident in your products. I have profound confidence in the products I’m using because they have hundreds and thousands of publications, and confidence in the company because it is a globally renowned premium company,” says Dr. Michael Norton.
“And I don’t care about the money saved on cheaper solutions. Because at the end of the day my patients come here for a premium treatment and they will pay for it. I can confidently look my patients in the eye after 25 years. And that is an important point. One of the problems with my industry, the way I see it, is that implant dentistry has become a one- to three-year profession. But if you put these implants in people who are going to live another 40, 50, 60 years, why would you be interested in just one year’s data? I would argue that confidence is about longevity. That you can show that this product doesn’t just work for one year or five, but for 20, 30 or 40 years.”
Speaking of the years to come, what do you think about the future of implant dentistry?
“The single biggest challenge is managing soft tissue. If we could find a way to pull out teeth without having an impact on hard and soft tissue, particularly soft tissue, that would be a revolution. Actually, the Atlantis system is a greater contribution to the advance of implant dentistry than anything we have done in the field of implants recently. The introduction of high-quality CAD/CAM abutments that can support the soft tissues and maximize soft tissue esthetics with gold hue, zirconia and so on – for me this has been the biggest advance in implant dentistry in the past decade,” says Dr. Michael Norton.