Our scope of practice as a specialty is largely defined by the knowledge and experience that is gained through the research efforts and subsequent publications produced by oral and maxillofacial surgeons. Without research, the science that supports our specialty disappears and we are left with a vocation that is more akin to a technical trade than a professional body. Therefore, it is essential that research continues to be an integral part of all oral and maxillofacial surgery training programmes worldwide, especially as the requirement for dual degrees in medicine and dentistry in some parts of the world has placed time pressures on our trainees, often at the expense of research.
So why bother with research? Head and neck surgical oncology, for example, is shared by a number of surgical specialties. If oral and maxillofacial surgeons expect to actively participate in this field, then it is essential that our specialty demonstrates its credentials through research and publications that help to highlight our critical contribution to this area of surgery. We cannot rely on the research experience of other surgical specialties if we are to secure the respect and trust of our medical and surgical colleagues from other disciplines who also have a mutual interest in head and neck oncology. Research must be driven by oral and maxillofacial surgeons because we alone can help define our surgical boundaries and, furthermore, our publications in peer-reviewed journals show the world where our interests and expertise lie. It is only through our diligent efforts to record and analyse our surgical experiences, and making these known to the world through journal publications, that we are able to consolidate our interests in various specialized areas of surgery such as cleft surgery, trauma, surgical oncology and implants and so on.
Research, I believe, should not be confined to university departments alone. All hospitals with oral and maxillofacial surgery units should strive to at least make the effort to collate data from various clinical audits that could potentially be put together as papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Regrettably, there are far too many operative procedures devised and promoted in clinical journals by experienced surgeons who have little appreciation of the fundamental importance of good research and evidence-based medicine.
Good research requires due diligence and patience, but all too often we are confronted with papers promoting surgical techniques, products or philosophies that are hastily put together with little regard for proper research methodology and far too short a timeframe to be able to make any useful contribution to the literature. We need to pay closer attention to promoting the basic research skills that surgeons require to advance our specialty. This can be achieved through a number of forums such as research fellowships and the activities of research interest groups that teach and promote the tools and skills required to undertake and communicate appropriately conducted research.
Research helps lay the foundation of knowledge and, if we are determined to expand and consolidate our scope of practice, then we must make sure that the knowledge and experience is being produced by our specialty. If we are to continue as a respectable professional body that is the principal advocate of surgery to the mouth, face and jaws, then we need to appreciate and accept that good research leads to good clinical practice.