Dr. Cecile Feldman and Dr. Richard Haught
Many people believe that dentists are not philanthropic. We disagree.
Dental professionals everywhere give their time and talent in support of oral health and access-to-care initiatives, both large and small. Whether new to the profession or well established within a community, family dentist or specialist, members of our profession value their ability to positively impact the lives of people who need what we can provide.
Dentists are also generous in terms of financial support, especially when the need is great and clearly communicated. Consider the response of dentists in recent years to large-scale disaster relief initiatives like those for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Not only did members of our community give of their time and talent to provide care for those in areas devastated by these events, they also pledged in excess of $2 million to aid in the ADA Foundation’s relief efforts.
Such generosity is extraordinary by any standards.
It represents a timely and focused response by our community to
an urgent call for action. It proves that when dentists consider
a situation compelling, they respond both as professionals and
But what if the urgent call to action came from within the profession? What would our response be if faced with an immediate and pressing need related to our professional futures and to the future of our profession?
Today we face such a call to action. There is an immediate and urgent need to strengthen the foundation of our profession – our dental education system. In a 2005 study supported by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, researchers concluded that America’s dental education system faces an uncertain and potentially tumultuous future, and that if financial and other critical issues confronting dental schools are not addressed, the dental profession will
face a “crisis” situation within the next 10 years.
While each dental school faces a unique set of challenges, there are a number of issues common to all. These include faculty shortages, keeping pace with technology advances, a lack of diversity among dental faculty and students, and the increasingly high cost of a dental education.
Currently, there are more than 280 full-time and 27
part-time vacancies across
our nation with an average of six vacancies per school. The reasons include loss of faculty to more financially attractive alternatives, such as full-time, private-practice opportunities. In addition, more than half of current dental school faculty will retire in the next several years without enough younger dentists to replace them. Further compounding the problem is the fact that among dental school faculties, only 5.1 percent are African-American and 3.8 percent are Hispanic. These numbers fail to represent the current diversity of the population as a whole, and as the United States becomes increasingly culturally and racially diverse, the disproportion will worsen unless action is taken to make the dental profession more diverse.
Enrollment of minority students is a major issue, with only 10 percent of the current student population consisting of minority students. One reason for the lack of diversity is the high cost of dental education and the lack of federal and state funding. But a lack of diversity is also caused by a lack of mentors and role models to encourage African-American and Hispanic students to pursue dentistry as a career. It’s a vicious cycle.
Another issue is the need for innovative models
of education delivery, including revised curricula, improved accreditation processes, modified length of required training and clinical time, and adoption of electronic teaching technology. Keeping pace with technological advances is especially difficult because of the high costs involved. Even with capital campaigns, financial needs outstrip gains, not least because of the fact that operating costs for dental schools are traditionally among the highest on university campuses. Unless new models of dental education financing are developed, the status of dentistry as a learned profession will be at risk.
What happens if we ignore these issues? Think of the line from Yeats’s poem, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “The center cannot hold.” Dental education is at the center of our profession; it the foundation on which all
of dentistry is built and sustained. Dental education has shaped our past, present, and continues to shape our future. It provides the environment in which research flourishes and scientific findings are translated into therapeutic advances, which improve the oral health of Americans. Through continuing education programs emanating from dental schools, we who practice are able to keep current about the latest materials, instruments, and techniques available to provide optimal care to our patients. Through community outreach programs, dental schools also serve as a vital safety net for the poor, who would not otherwise have access to care. The bottom line is that a strong dental education system is indivisible from maintaining dentistry as a respected, trusted health-care profession and improving the health of the public.
Here, then, is a call to action: Help to safeguard and advance the profession that means so much to all of us by working together to create a culture of philanthropy in support of dental education unlike anything seen before in dentistry. This will be a culture of individual pride, responsibility and support, a culture in which we set aside our differences, preconceived notions and traditional attitudes in order to enact meaningful change.
The engine that will drive this culture of philanthropy is a national campaign, Dental Education: Our Legacy – Our Future, whose goal is to raise more than $500 million over the next 10 years.
A 2004 ADA Foundation Task Force created to study the challenges facing dental education and to design a national response found that what makes dental education most valuable to most dentists is its role in upholding the integrity of the profession.
Integrity is the lifeblood of the dental profession, but without a strong dental education system, our devotion to superior standards will be compromised. Our Legacy – Our Future puts the dentist in the driver’s seat. It permits each of us to decide how we want to support dental education, whether through programs that support research or address faculty shortages, through a dental school campaign, or through the ADA Foundation or a partner association. The campaign itself will not collect any money; it is not important to us where the support goes, as long as dental education is the beneficiary. The campaign recognizes that it takes alliances to make a difference and a determination to define dentistry more by what it gives than what it gets.
The rewards that will come from this initiative are spectacular: a rich supply of diverse, talented, fairly-compensated dental educators, plus the most innovative curricula, and the latest equipment, technology and research facilities in which to educate future generations of dentists. We hope you will make Dental Education:
Our Legacy – Our Future your partner in securing your professional future and the future of the dental profession.
For more information on Dental Education: Our Legacy – Our Future, please visit www.securedentaled.org.