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Facing the future with shared beliefs

Dr. Ron Tankersley installed as ADA's 146th president

In facing current and future challenges—including challenges posed by health care reform—dentists should draw on certain shared beliefs fundamental to their status as health care professionals, Dr. Ronald L. Tankersley told the ADA House of Delegates, meeting this week at annual session in Honolulu.

Dr. Tankersley, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon from Newport News, Va., and a dentist in private practice for 38 years, was installed Oct. 6 as the ADA's 146th president.

In the national debate over health care reform, said the new president, "some proposed initiatives would be helpful; others would be disastrous" and it's up to the profession to ensure "that any changes in dentistry actually improve oral health."

Most dentists, he said, share three fundamental beliefs when it comes to health care reform:

• "All Americans should have access to the care necessary to maintain essential oral health." That includes receiving treatment for such conditions as "acute infections, life-threatening or debilitating tumors, facial trauma and congenital facial deformities."

For all Americans to gain access to basic oral care, said Dr. Tankersley, "policy makers need to step up to the plate, support well-designed public health infrastructure and provide reasonable reimbursements for publicly funded patients" in recognition that "charity is not a sustainable health care plan."

New workforce models, he said, also may help boost access to care, but they must be developed without compromising safety and quality, lowering educational standards or shifting diagnostic and oversight responsibilities to less qualified health care workers.

"We believe that the difference between those who 'do what they know' and those who 'know what to do' will affect outcomes," said the new ADA president.

• "Americans with the means and desire should be free to choose from the full range of accepted health care options." In fact, he added, "we believe dentists are ethically obligated" to inform patients of their options, including the advantages and disadvantages of those options.

"Outcome-based, value-drive competition promotes efficiency, innovation and quality," said Dr. Tankersley. "Zero-sum health care rationing stifles innovation, requires cost-driven decisions and burdensome administrative oversight.

Any attempt to impose zero-sum health care rationing on the entire population would be inappropriate, he said. "We believe it is unnecessary to dismantle the parts of health care that work to fix those parts that are broken."

• "Dental practice should be based on ethics, sound science and quality education." In fact, he added, "we believe that those elements are essential for the credibility of our profession," that dental care "should be based upon science, not political or economic agendas" and that what's best for patients ultimately is best for the profession.

During his years as a trustee for the 16th District (Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina) and president-elect, Dr. Tankersley learned that many of those counted as adversaries of the ADA actually "share our beliefs if we have the opportunity to explain them."

He added, "Like us, these groups all consider themselves champions of oral health. Nonetheless, their policies and initiatives threaten access to safe, quality, state-of-the-art dental care in the future—so they need to be either enlightened or politically marginalized."

To succeed, he said, the ADA must offer pragmatic solutions to oral health challenges, demonstrate concern for patients proactively and "tell our story better."

The new president talked about the need for the House of Delegates itself to work together collaboratively, engaging in spirited debate, but without counterproductive distrust and cynicism.

He talked about the need for the Board of Trustees to be more effective as well, to tend more closely to its managerial responsibilities, working with the new executive director, Dr. Kathy O'Loughlin. He cited actions the Board has taken to tighten fiscal controls, streamline planning and ensure that fiduciary responsibilities are being met.

"On a brighter note," said Dr. Tankersley, "we can be proud of our efforts to proactively demonstrate our concern for the public." He cited a host of activities targeted to public need, including the expanded Give Kids A Smile program, Missions of Mercy, Donated Dental Services, Oral Health Literacy, Eldercare, initiatives in the area of ethics, evidence-based dentistry, dental quality assessment, education and dentistry's historical emphasis on prevention.

To do a better job of "telling our story," the president said, the ADA needs refined messages, rapid responses to emerging issues and an improved relationship with the news media.

"We also need to collaborate with other groups that advocate for better oral health: ethnic groups, specialty organizations, the American Dental Education Association, the public health community, advocacy groups and foundations."

Underscoring its collaborative approach, the ADA has held summit meetings with a wide range of interest groups, and still other summits are being planned.

"With these and similar efforts throughout the tripartite, out story will become well known," said Dr. Tankersley. "Our belief that what's best for the patient is best for the profession will become common knowledge. Oral advocates will realize that we are the most reliable resource for solutions to oral health problems."

In closing, the new president noted that the delegates to the House are "guardians of the profession," setting dentistry's course.

"My responsibility this year," he said, "is to represent you, promote your policies and facilitate your business. I am honored that you have given me that responsibility and look forward to working with you."