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Champion for expanding access to care earns 2017 Norton M. Ross Award

Dr. Paul Casamassimo named recipient of annual award recognizing excellence in research

October 16, 2017

By Michelle Manchir


Dr. Casamassimo
Dr. Paul Casamassimo muses that his attraction to dentistry as a profession “may be genetic,” considering his father and sister are dentists.

But DNA alone can’t account for Dr. Casamassimo’s accomplishments in the field, such as authoring or editing more than 350 publications; providing direction for pediatric dentists all over the world through his research; and mentoring and training hundreds of pediatric dental students.

For his achievements in pediatric dentistry; extensive research and publications background; and leadership and service to dentistry, the ADA has awarded Dr. Casmassimo the 2017 Norton M. Ross Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.

The ADA has presented the annual award, financially supported by Johnson & Johnson, since 1991 to recognize investigators whose research has significant impact on some aspect of clinical dentistry.

In ADA President Gary L. Roberts’ letter to Dr. Casamassimo announcing the honor, Dr. Roberts said the honor “recognizes your dedication to improving the oral care for disabled, minority, sick, vulnerable and underserved populations. The commitment you have shown to nontraditional approaches to clinical research has brought together community, government, clinical and behavioral sciences for better children’s health.”

Added Dr. Michael Lynch, global director of oral care and fellow of global scientific engagement at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., “For several decades, Dr. Casamassimo has been a visionary leader in pediatric dentistry and a strong advocate for expanding access to care, as well as elevating awareness of the importance of children's oral health care.”

Dr. Casamassimo will receive $5,000 and a commemorative plaque during a ceremony at ADA 2017 – America’s Dental Meeting in Atlanta.

“It is a wonderful and totally unexpected surprise,” said Dr. Casamassimo. “I would never have expected this in a million years. My reward for years of clinical research has been the satisfaction of answering questions others never asked, but which have had implications for patient care in children and special needs adults.”

Early call to pediatric dentistry and helping children

It became clear to Dr. Casamassimo while attending Georgetown University College of Dentistry that “pediatric dentistry was not meant for the faint of heart,” he said. At the university, he had the opportunity to work with predoctoral pediatric dentist educators who also had private practices, he said, and who “had little hesitation about putting dental students to work with challenging children, some with behavior guidance needs and others with disabilities.”

It was during this time Dr. Casamassimo said he learned to “engage children rather than force care,” especially among youth who, as he put it, “couldn’t or wouldn’t cooperate.”

The experiences turned many of his classmates off, Dr. Casamassimo recalls, but “he enjoyed the bigger challenge” and pursued a certificate in pediatric dentistry from the University of Iowa after graduating from Georgetown with his D.D.S. in 1974.

Since then, much of Dr. Casamassimo’s research and work can be traced to one driving factor: helping children with special needs.

For Dr. Casamassimo, this pursuit “had the greatest potential to shape the health of a human being. I still get a kick out of treating children and seeing them grow.”

‘Nontraditional’ approach to research

Having served in numerous academic and clinical positions since 1981, Dr. Casamassimo most recently spent 24 years, until 2015, as the chair of the division of pediatric dentistry and community oral health at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry in Columbus, Ohio, where he and his wife, Maureen, still live and raised their three children.

Early in his career, Dr. Casamassimo began securing grants to fund his research, which have addressed topics such as oral findings in Fragile X syndrome; evaluating appropriate treatment modifications and radiographic techniques for people who are handicapped; and the incidence of dental caries and enamel defects in a sample of PKU children and their siblings.

To be sure, his research “is aimed at improving the care for disabled, minority, sick, vulnerable and underserved populations,” noted Dr. Kevin Laing, president of the Ohio Dental Association, in his letter to the ADA nominating Dr. Casamassimo for the Norton M. Ross Award.

In his letter, Dr. Laing also calls his colleague “a powerful champion for expanding access to care and awareness of the importance of children’s oral health care” and notes Dr. Casamassimo’s “nontraditional approach to clinical research.”

When asked what he thought this meant, Dr. Casamassimo said he calls his research career “an Edisonian approach to dental research.”

“Rather than take the path of a singular dimension, which many researchers do by virtue of their interest and training, I tried to look at things that I felt needed to be investigated,” he said. “Clarifying oral findings in systemic disease, looking at the potential hazards to women in dentistry from patient cancer chemotherapy, finding the dental home alive and well in dental practice, confirming the compassion of my colleagues in caring for special needs patients, and bringing attention to the role of contemporary parents in child behavior are just a few of the areas I felt needed attention. There are many, many more for me and any others interested in ‘the why’ of our profession. I always ask this question before any research effort – will it make a difference one way or the other? If the answer is yes, I go for it.”

Organized dentistry leader

A member for decades of the ADA and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Dr. Casamassimo has also served in high-ranking positions within each group. He is a former president of the AAPD and the editor emeritus of its journal, Pediatric Dentistry. He is currently a member of the ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention.

He calls himself “a zealous believer in organized dentistry.”

“Without the dedication of our associations' resources to advocacy, derived I might add from each member, our patients would be left out in the cold with oral health nothing more than management of pain,” he said.

Dr. Casamassimo’s leadership roles in publishing extend even further.

He is past-president of the Academy of Dentistry for the Handicapped and past editor of the Journal of Dentistry for the Handicapped and for the Journal of Dentistry for Children.

His authorship/editorship includes three books, 39 book chapters and eight monographs related to pediatric dentistry.

“Essentially,” wrote Dr. Laing about Dr. Casamassimo, “his work has provided direction for the nation’s pediatric dentists and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and its advocacy. Dental home concepts, intervention for early childhood caries, early screening and state and federal dental care guidelines have all benefited from his investigations.”

Leaving a legacy

Dr. Casamassimo now serves as a professor emeritus at the Ohio State University College of Dentistry, so he continues to contribute to the university’s academic mission and research activities, he said.

He also continues to work as an attending dentist on staff of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he serves as a clinical instructor.

Reflecting on his career, he said it is his work with pediatric dental students that makes him especially proud.

“The hundreds of pediatric dentists I've trained has to be my career's greatest gift. I've been fortunate to have the very best students over the years. This is followed closely by friendships and collaboration within my specialty.”

Dr. Casamassimo calls himself “semi-retired,” and said he enjoys gardening, fishing and spending time with his grandkids. But don’t expect to see him out of scrubs for good any time soon.

“I’ll never leave pediatric dentistry unless I have to,” he said. “It is a field that keeps one young, enthusiastic and intellectually challenged to do the best for kids.”