Part II of the Emerging Debate on the Role of
Research in Dental Education and the Profession

Let's Get Together
- Dr. Jack Dillenberg

Jack Dillenberg, DDS, MPH Dean, A. T. Still University's Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health

What's more important-groundbreaking research or a groundbreaking curriculum? Aren't they equally important?

In an article in the summer 2010 issue of Global Health Nexus, the question was asked: "Who is going to lead the profession into the future if all we are doing is training dentists to be technically competent?" The article posits "an emerging tiered system of dental education" occasioned by the rise of schools that, it is suggested, don't have a credible research program.

In my opinion, this point of view, held by some research-intensive dental school deans, promotes a misguided philosophy that has now drawn a line in the sand instead of fostering collaboration among all dental schools.

The recent Ann Arbor Dental Deans Forum in May 2010 included some 27 hand-picked participants from the 60 US dental schools, and was a clear demonstration not only of a lack of understanding of the oral health needs of this country, but also of the true determinants of the success of a profession.

As the dean of one of the newer dental schools, one that has seen dramatic success in its mission to educate compassionate, community-minded dentists, it was disheartening to hear about the forum after the fact. How can we solve the critical issues facing the profession of dentistry if the majority of dental schools are not invited to participate? It was a sad day, and a wasted opportunity.

Every dental school can contribute to the improvement of the overall health of our population through good oral health. No one school or philosophy is more valuable or important than another. We all have something to offer, we all have room for improvement, and we all have a societal responsibility to be inclusive, collaborative, and innovative.

The success of dentistry as a profession relies on our integrity, compassion, and leadership, and not just in terms of the new knowledge generated in research laboratories. A profession translates that knowledge into policies, service, and health improvement through its behavior and actions. Research is critical in moving dentistry forward; but unless we also make it a priority to graduate dentists who are driven to fulfill the dramatic and currently unmet oral health needs of our nation, we have not fully done our jobs as educators or as ambassadors of the profession.

The oral health needs in this country are great. Knowing isn't enough-we know what to do and how to do it, but in reality, we have not done a good job in delivering "the goods" to those in our society who are the most vulnerable. The poor, medically complex elderly, rural, people of color, American Indians, and those with intellectual disabilities continue to lack adequate oral health care-- not because we need more research, but because of the lack of willing dental providers to address their needs. Research will not solve this problem. It never has and never will. It's the people we select to enter the profession of dentistry and how we educate and nurture them in our schools that will make the difference in their lives.

Community Health Centers and Indian Health Services can't find dentists to fill their well-paying positions. The founding of at least one of the new generation of dental schools-A. T. Still University's Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health-was a direct result of their requests for help; and the outcome for four consecutive years has been the highest number of dental graduates going into community service.

The assumption that the esteem and prestige of a profession come only from research and that non-research-intensive dental schools are focused only on producing technically competent dentists is insulting, and simply not true.

It's not just about technical competence. It's also about heart, leadership, and the commitment to make a difference that will elevate our profession to one of high esteem and respect among the people we serve. The health system in this country is undergoing change whether we support it or not. We have a responsibility to help guide, if not lead, this process to the best possible outcome for all. The best way to do this is to work collaboratively and complement each other-not exclude and demean each other. Every family has its tensions, arguments, crises, and tragedies-and we as a profession have ours. We need to come together, recognize our differences, and respect them. We need to work together to ensure the esteem and respect that we desire from our healthcare colleagues and patients. A self-serving approach does not help us or help solve the problems facing us. The challenges facing our profession will always be present; how we resolve to address them will define our future and our ultimate success."