WA is home to some of our nation's best and most highly regarded medical experts, but how many can lay claim to a perfectly smiling fan club of thousands of children and their families?

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Dr Peter Gregory. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

DR PETER GREGORY
SPECIALIST PAEDIATRIC DENTIST

WA is home to some of our nation's best and most highly regarded medical experts, but how many can lay claim to a perfectly smiling fan club of thousands of children and their families?

Peter Gregory can.

Dr Gregory is no shrinking violet. He is a gregarious man who has an international reputation for the work that he does and his fan club is, paradoxically, both very common and very exclusive.

Dr Gregory is WA's first specialist paediatric dentist but chances are you won't have heard of him, unless your child has suffered a dental trauma or has had significant dental problems.

After 40 years in dentistry, the State's first-ever specialist paediatric dentist has retired from regular dentistry to concentrate on professorial duties of research and training postgraduate students at The University of WA.

He will now also have more time to devote to The Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons and his work as the chairman of the finance committee of the International Association of Paediatric Dentistry.

Probably missing him the most will be his patients at Princess Margaret Hospital where he has - for decades - treated children needing emergency dental surgery.

It is at PMH that Dr Gregory says many of his most memorable cases were treated, usually in multidisciplinary teams of medical specialists.

"Probably the most memorable cases for me, over 30 years at PMH, were the pre-school children who had suffered dental and facial injuries as a result of being attacked by dogs," he said.

"The teeth of the lower jaw of the dog would embed into the palate of the child and the teeth of the upper jaw embed into the bridge of the nose, literally dragging the middle third of the face forward.

"In the operating theatre, in addition to the paediatric dentists or oral surgeons, there would be plastic surgeons and ear, nose and throat surgeons and if the lacrimal (tear) ducts or eyes were affected, then ophthalmic surgeons as well."

Dr Gregory has decades of emergency response experience as well as being one of only a few dentists experienced in treating children with disabilities.

While the rewards of working with children were great, Dr Gregory warned that becoming a specialist paediatric dentist was neither an easy or short road. He had already spent 10 years in general dental practice in Midland when the WA School Dental Service was started in the early 1980s, changing the course of his career.

The new - and free - service effectively took many children out of the private dental system so Dr Gregory jumped at the chance to take part in a specialist training program in children's dentistry through PMH and the Dental Hospital and Dental School.

"I had always enjoyed treating children and they seemed to relate well to me," he said.

"I then did a year in a children's hospital in Chicago and that international exposure really set the scene and I came back to Perth to be the first specialist paediatric dentist - we now have eight."

Dr Gregory said that paediatric dentistry was a very rewarding speciality for dentists who, like him, were passionate about treating children, were prepared to deal equally as well with parents and were also up for an extremely long learning process.

He said the challenges of paediatric dentistry were not so much technical, but centred on behavioural techniques to "control" children in a positive way, allowing for treatment.

He said that they must not just treat the immediate dental problems but take into account the possible effects of that treatment on the developing teeth and mouth of the child.

"Most importantly, a paediatric dentist must also be able to read body language to succeed," he said.

And it is not just the body language of children that should be noted - but also the attitudes and concerns of their parents.

Dr Gregory said that the more assertive role of parents was probably the biggest change he had noted over the years.

"Parents don't want to see their child traumatised when they go to the dentist and this has led to a big increase in the use of sedation and general anaesthetic, which I view as a positive," he said.

"Dentistry is not like having a haircut, it's an invasive procedure and we are very fortunate in this State to have quality anaesthetists who are willing to give their time to dentistry. There really is no excuse today for kids to be tied down and screaming like they were 20 and 30 years ago."

There was certainly no chance of that at Dr Gregory's former practice, where children continue to be treated in colourfully decorated rooms, with toys to hold, funky sunglasses to wear and helium balloons awaiting after treatment.

"The greatest delight you have in paediatric dentistry is when you have behaviourally turned around a child who is fearful of the dentist," he said.