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Speaking up for dentistry

Dr. Maxine Feinberg wants to ensure that the profession's voice is heard

September 15, 2014
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In a family brimming with lawyers, young Maxine Feinberg steadfastly resisted the pressure of loved ones to become an attorney.

Photo of Dr. Feinberg
Dr. Maxine Feinberg: She will be installed Oct. 14 in San Antonio as the 151st ADA president.
Instead, her early childhood experience with baby bottle caries, the patience and care of her dentist and the influence of a high school teacher led her to dentistry.

"My brother, my cousins and some of my uncles were attorneys," said Dr. Feinberg, who will be installed as 151st president of the American Dental Association Oct. 14 in San Antonio.

"Early on I thought I might become an attorney, but in high school, my biology teacher told me she thought I had the aptitude for one of the health professions," said the president-elect, who grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. "I had baby bottle syndrome and had been seeing a dentist from the age of 3-1/2, and he was incredibly encouraging to me. Between my dentist and my biology teacher, I realized that I had no desire to go into law: I was fascinated by dentistry, by the idea of being able to help people with their oral health. Plus, I loved the sciences. It was perfect for me."

She described her dentist as having the patience of a saint. "At 3-1/2, I was not the easiest patient. I had a tremendous need for treatment. I joke that he invented evening hours to treat me because I could be rather loud and unruly at that age."

Even during college, when she had declared herself as pre-dent, her uncle tried to dissuade her. Later, it was her brother. "When my older brother was driving me to an interview at a dental school, he told me I still had two weeks to sign up for the LSAT. They were all trying to convince me to go to law school till the very end, but I knew dentistry was the right decision and I never regretted it."

She was the first in her family to enter the health professions. Her father, one of 12 children, started factory work when he graduated high school and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She and her only sibling, her brother, were the first college graduates in their immediate family.

"I think, though, that perhaps I do have the lawyer gene, and that is partially how I became so involved in organized dentistry. One thing you learn growing up in a family of lawyers is, if you have an opinion, speak up, speak your mind and take a stand," she recalled. "At our house we constantly sat down at the table and discussed politics, and you had to be able to make a cogent argument and defend yourself. There is no question that being the only girl and youngest cousin meant I had to work hard to be heard."

Photo of Dr. Feinberg
Thank you: Dr. Feinberg thanks the House of Delegates in New Orleans in November 2013 after her election as president-elect.
Dr. Feinberg attended New York University for dental school, graduating in 1980.  The next year she spent in anesthesia training at Mount Sinai Hospital. Afterward, she worked for a year in a program in which she treated nursing home patients in New York via a mobile dental van.

"That was a wonderful experience, giving me a unique perspective on dentistry. New York had recently passed a law requiring nursing homes to provide dental care, and this population was in great need. It was incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating at same time."

Until her patients got to know her, they usually mistook her dental assistant, a young man who always wore a blazer, as the dentist.

"I'd say, 'I'm the dentist.' They'd be astonished and almost outraged. I had to convince them I was the dentist and that the young man was my dental assistant. After a while they'd calm down and, once over the shock, they'd let me examine them. In 1981 there were not many women dentists, and these were elderly people."

The treatment needs were great among the nursing home population. "This experience helped me to appreciate and understand to this day the importance of our efforts to advocate for vulnerable populations, such as the work we are doing with the Action for Dental Health," Dr. Feinberg said.

Her decision to pursue periodontology as a specialty reflected the times, she said. "In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a tremendous amount of exciting research in the field. I was fascinated by the science, by the potential in terms of regeneration."

She credits Dr. Sigmund Stahl, then chair of the NYU periodontology department, as playing "a huge role" in influencing her to choose periodontology. "He was such an inspiration, not just as an academician and clinician, but as a human being. Also, Dr. Milton A. Marten, another periodontist at NYU, encouraged me."

Before starting her own practice, she worked for others, including Dr. Marten, in both large group practices and with established private practice periodontists. "After a few years, I decided I wanted to be my own boss. I took that leap of faith. I have to say, it was scary. I didn't have any patients."

The toughest part in 1984 was getting a loan — simply because she was a woman.

"I went to four banks, including the one I had a checking account with for some 15 years with my mother. No one would give me a loan."

A friend suggested a bank that had a medical and dental lending division, but she was also denied a loan there. "I finally went to a bank in New Jersey with a medical lending division. A young banker told me the bank would only let him make the loan if my husband co-signed the note. At that point, I needed that loan and my husband said he was fine with doing it."

Describing herself as pragmatic and anxious to open the practice in her hometown of Elizabeth, she took the loan, opened her office and paid it off within a few years. "Now we can laugh about it. Today no one would think twice. When I moved to a larger location 10 years later in Cranford and I needed to take out a second loan, no one asked for a cosigner. I am glad that today women who graduate from dental school aren't facing the same barriers."

Dr. Feinberg and her husband, John Wynne, met in 1981 in California when she was visiting a friend. "He moved for me. He thought he was moving to New York City, but he jokes it was 'bait and switch' because I dragged him to New Jersey a few years later."

The two celebrated 30 years of marriage this year, and they have two grown daughters, Haley and Rebecca.

"My husband, who is now retired, has been very supportive of my career. My children were raised within organized dentistry, attending every level of dental meeting. My mother would come with us when they were infants to watch them. When my younger daughter, Rebecca, was in elementary school, she ran for class president when I was president of the New Jersey Dental Association. When I found out she was running, she told me, 'Well, if you can be president of the dental association, I can be class president.'

Dr. Feinberg's volunteer efforts in organized dentistry started immediately after she opened her practice in Elizabeth. A colleague took her to her first meeting and introduced her to her local society. There were few women in the group at the time, though that later changed. "They needed someone to chair the oral screening, so I said sure. That's how I started. I did that for nine years, accepting other jobs along the way."

From the local component, she moved to the state organization, where she became New Jersey Dental Association president in 2002 — its first female president. She was ADA 4th District trustee (Delaware, District of Columbia, Federal Dental Services, Maryland, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands) before being voted president-elect in 2013 at the ADA annual meeting in New Orleans.

As trustee, she served on a number of Board committees and was the first elected chair of the ADA Audit Committee. She has chaired the Task Force on Student Debt and the Council on Members Insurance and Retirement Plans. She is also past president of the New Jersey State Board of Dentistry.

Other dental memberships include American College of Dentists, International College of Dentists, Pierre Fauchard Academy, American Academy of Periodontology and the Academy of General Dentistry.

"Over the years I came to realize that you learn something from every job you have in organized dentistry. No job is too small. Little by little, I took on new responsibilities and learned something from each one. In every role, there are relationships you make, friendships you make."

This summer, Dr. Feinberg met with Judy Jakush, ADA News editor, to discuss the goals she's set for her coming year as ADA president as well as some of what she's learned throughout her career. This is the first installment of a two-part interview.

ADA News: Given your background in organized dentistry, you obviously see value in getting involved. How do you describe that value to other dentists to encourage them to do the same?

Dr. Feinberg: I have received so much more value from my involvement than I have put in. Of course, I put in the time and effort, but as you get involved, you realize that this is an investment in your profession, and that you can't leave it to others. You have to be an active participant. Once you've been involved in change, legislative, regulatory or otherwise, you learn that the voice of dentistry can be heard. You can see a positive impact on the future by the actions taken to protect and improve the profession for generations to come.

Dentistry has given me a wonderful career and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I want to ensure that next generation is going to love their career and profession as much as I have. Unfortunately, there are many uncertainties in the environment today. If it wasn't for the voice of organized dentistry, who would speak for us? Who would advocate for us?

ADA News: What is one of your top priorities for the coming year?

Dr. Feinberg: One of the top is dental education and finding a collaborative way to address issues of student debt. This encompasses student debt, the graduation numbers, clinical preparation, and why dental school costs so much. We haven't really changed the way we educate dentists since the 1926 Gies Report. The most expensive part of dental education is the clinical part. Are there new and innovative approaches? How can we encourage development of those? What can be done to reduce the debt burden? The ADA can't do any of this alone. It takes a collaborative effort, and I want to continue the dialogue with all components of the dental community involved in education.

ADA News: How does that fit in with building member value throughout the Association, whether it is a local society, state dental association or the ADA?  

Dr. Feinberg: Working collaboratively at all levels of the organization is essential to our future. We are working toward a level of collaboration that ensures that members in every state and every component have the most positive experience from their first touch point with organized dentistry. We don't want someone to have an experience that doesn't encourage him or her to come back to the next meeting or to remember to call the state or ADA with a question. We can't lose any potential members. Every dentist is a part of the future of our profession. We have a tremendous amount of work ongoing toward this end, and the ADA is helping by providing the relevant resources.

That is really what Power of Three is: this collaboration to find ways to work together to avoid duplication of effort while providing members with first-class service. We have put resources into the Member Service University and the Leadership Academy as an investment in the future.

We are also helping states by offering Aptify, an association management software that we are implementing for them at no cost.

I really do believe that if we are going to stop a decline in membership it is going to have to be a team effort. The ADA nationally can't do this alone. We are going to have to make this a three-part effort, and our outreach to dental schools is a critical part of that effort.

Part 2 of the interview will appear in the Oct. 6 ADA News.