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New ADA president calls for tripartite to work as one

November 18, 2013

2013-14 ADA president: Dr. Norman addresses the House of Delegates Nov. 5, urging the tripartite to unite as the unified voice of the profession. Photo by EZ Event Photography
New Orleans—Call it the “rule of three” or the “power of three,” it is a combination familiar from childhood that ultimately permeates our lives.

It starts for most of us with the three little pigs, the three blind mice. In time, it graduates to higher-minded interests: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In his address to the House of Delegates Nov. 5—the day of his installation as the ADA's 150th president—Dr. Charles H. Norman noted that organized dentistry has a term for its own power of three: the tripartite.

“In 1912, the Association reorganized and adopted a new constitution and bylaws establishing the tripartite membership structure,” said the new president, a general dentist from Greensboro, N.C. “This structure empowered the organization to take its rightful place as the nation's advocate for the dental profession and has characterized the ADA ever since.”

When in proper alignment, dentistry's three-tiered structure “builds upon the strength of component, constituent and national” organizations, said Dr. Norman. “But far too often,” he added, “we are not recognized as one unified voice for dentistry, but as multiple organizations competing for a leadership role.”

Competition within the tripartite creates a disjointed organization offering “duplicative services that are a drain on our limited resources,” said the president. This, in turn, hampers efforts to address the pressing issues of the day—from health care reform, to globalization, to workforce issues and more.

Dr. Norman pinpointed three areas to which he said dentistry must commit for a successful future:

• understanding the importance of a unified tripartite aligned for strength;

• recognizing a sense of urgency around membership challenges confronting the tripartite;

• gaining insight into the current structure's limitations and future opportunities.

The tripartite's decentralization and autonomy may have served the organization well in the past, but no longer, he said. Having three levels distinctly going their own way within the organization means innovation is often isolated, not easily shared, and services too often are duplicated. “As a result, we miss opportunities for economies of scale in program development and operations.”

He noted, too, that market share challenges are widespread across the tripartite.

“ADA market share lags for the categories of dentists that represent increasing proportions of dental school graduating classes—women and minorities,” he said. “That's not a recipe for success; we must expect and demand a better effort.”

The tripartite, said Dr. Norman, too often comes across as an “extremely dysfunctional brand” offering a confusing array of services at widely varying dues rates.

“Who would know that we are one organization?” he asked.

Decentralizing certain services can have its advantages, encouraging innovation that can and should be shared across the system. “But there are absolutely no advantages to uncoordinated tripartite services for members,” said the president.

He called on leadership and staff at all levels of the tripartite to come together to review their roles within the organization and to confront the challenge of “balancing and coordinating services to ensure membership growth for years to come.”

Added Dr. Norman, “We must develop one brand for organized dentistry. We must deliver goods and services in the most appropriate, efficient and cost-effective manner. We are one organization, not three.”

The ADA is a team, he said, with each level of the tripartite playing a role to help the larger organization succeed.

“Therefore, all of us—in each and every component and constituent—should execute the same game plan, use the same playbook and be on the same page,” said the ADA's new president.