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A conversation with the president-elect

Dr. Summerhays ready to lead

October 19, 2015

Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays: She will be installed Nov. 10 in Washington, D.C. as the 152nd ADA president.
Service is a byword in Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays' family, which has served four generations in the U.S. armed forces. Those donning a uniform include Dr. Summerhays herself, who committed 17 years to the U.S. Navy, four of which were in active duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps after graduating from the University of Southern California Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry. Her father enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the Philippines as her maternal grandfather had done with the U.S. Army. Both retired from their respective services. The youngest generation is represented by her eldest son, Giles, who is in the National Guard.

That strong history of commitment is reflected in her own dedication to her family, her career and to the dental profession through her leadership in organized dentistry. Dr. Summerhays will become the 152nd president of the American Dental Association when she is installed Nov. 10 before the ADA House of Delegates in Washington, D.C.  

Her personal heritage as a Filipino-American and the daughter in a military family gave her valuable lessons in life. "When I ran for the office of president-elect, I talked a lot about where my family came from and why they came here. They saw the U.S. as being the best country in the world, a place of opportunity for everyone. They believed in traditional American values. I believe these reflect the core values of our profession."

Dr. Summerhays entered the University of San Francisco as a biology major on the premed track, but changed her mind once she saw dentistry up close. After a summer studying in Mexico and visiting a dental school there, she discovered that dentistry was the career for her. "As I learned more about dentistry, I loved the patient contact and the ability to have a relationship with patients for a long time. Many of my patients were in my practice for over 30 years. I also like the autonomy dentistry gives us, and the ability to combine that with family life."

She was born in San Diego, but as a Navy family, they moved around the country, and it was the Navy that brought her back to San Diego after she finished dental school.

"I was able to go to dental school on a full scholarship through the Armed Forces Health Professions Act, and I was stationed in San Diego. It brought me full circle," she recalls. "I was the first one in my family to get a graduate degree, and the first one to be an officer in the Navy — two things that were big for my family."

Family: Dr. Summerhays and her husband, Soames, have two sons, Giles (left) and Bryce.
Transitioning from the military to private practice was easy, she said, because she didn't have to leave San Diego and her Navy experience had given her the clinical confidence to branch out on her own. She worked as an associate at another dental practice while at the same time launching her own general dental practice.

On the business end of practice, she ran into a few surprises. "At the time, the early '80s, we had an oversupply of dentists and interest rates skyrocketed to over 20 percent. My practice loan went from 12 percent to 20 percent literally within a few weeks. People weren't coming in to see dentists. It was a tough time for the economy. But my message, especially to dental students and new dentists now, is that we overcame that. Having the guidance and support of the members of the local component really helped me get through those challenging times and become successful."

The members of the local component society helped through practice management advice, referring her to consultants that they trusted. "In the end, we progressed out of that economy. Everything in this profession has exceeded my dreams — I can say that looking back now after 40 years."

Her dream, she explains, "was to be the best dentist I could be for my patients, combine private practice with family life and give back to my community and country."

Part of establishing her practice was joining the Association, getting started at the component level and becoming a member of its board of directors. She also had a mentor, renowned USC professor Dr. Clifton Dummett. "He was my mentor in dental school and until he passed away a few years ago. He was very much committed to organized dentistry. I was active in dental school in leadership positions and after the children were a  little bit older he was the one who came back and said, 'OK, Carol, how are you getting involved with organized dentistry?'"

Dr. Dummett was a great mentor, she said, and he set an important example for her. "Faculty members have a great influence on students, not just while they are in dental school but throughout their lives. We are extremely appreciative of those who commit to teaching in dental school."

Her work at the state level focused on continuing education efforts, joining the CDA's Council on Scientific Sessions, which she chaired for two years and helped transition it to a board. She took on other roles at the state level including positions on the boards of The Dentists Insurance Company and the CDA Foundation leading to CDA president and later ADA 13th District trustee before being chosen as president-elect at ADA 2014 in San Antonio.

Dr. Summerhays and her husband, Soames, a marine biologist, have two sons, Giles and Bryce.

As an ADA trustee, Dr. Summerhays served on several Board committees and chaired the ADA Compensation Committee and the ADA Governance Committee. Her professional affiliations include the American College of Dentists, Academy of General Dentistry, American Association of Women Dentists, Hispanic Dental Association, National Dental Association and the Pankey Institute. Among her awards in San Diego, Dr. Summerhays was honored in 2010 by the Salvation Army as one of the "Women of Dedication—Portraits in Philanthropy" and by the Girl Scouts as one of "San Diego's 10 Cool Women."

Dr. Summerhays offered her perspectives on the profession and organized dentistry in an interview with Judy Jakush, ADA News editor. This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.

ADA News: What are your priorities for the coming year?

Dr. Summerhays: We know from our Health Policy Institute that we are facing what may be the most significant changes in 100 years. We have an opportunity to build the ADA for the future, in order to meet the needs of our dentists in this changing environment.

We know that dentists are not as busy as much as they'd like to be — most practices are under capacity.  So, we have to look at how to increase the number of people that get in to see a dentist, because the need is there but the demand isn't. We have this huge issue in front of us.

We are also internally taking the first serious look at revising our bylaws since they were first written in the early 1940s. I'm really encouraged that revised bylaws will give us the ability to operate more effectively and efficiently for the profession and the patients we serve as we move into the future.

If I had to say it all in one phrase, I'd like to set the stage for further building the ADA as a 21st century professional organization for future generations.

ADA News: What changes are on the horizon?

Dr. Summerhays: Some of the trends HPI is making us aware of include the changing economy, the new normal for at least the foreseeable future. Demand has been flat, and there are sufficient graduating dentists. The Affordable Care Act certainly accelerated change, and we are looking at new payment systems where physicians will be paid based on outcomes.

Soon after, dentists may also be paid on outcomes, too, in reference to government-funded programs.

We know there is a huge increase in Medicaid recipients, and so there has been a huge uptick in the numbers of people going to federally qualified health care centers for dental care. An estimated 74 percent increase compared to a 9 percent decrease in the total number of visits to dental offices.

For many dentists in practice, I'm not sure they understand these changes in the environment that are causing them to have openings in their schedules. At the end of the day, that's what our members are seeing. The Health Policy Institute is informing us about the reasons for the changes and is helping us to look forward to see how we can help our members.  It is our job as leaders to recognize trends, apply our knowledge and look for opportunities.

Dentists in private practice may partner with an FQHC and accept patient referrals. I am seeing more new dentists working in FQHCs because that's where job opportunities are presenting themselves. We know through ACA that many more children have dental coverage, so we can encourage our members to expand services to treat children. We also know there is opportunity with the senior population who need and value dental care.
The HPI is providing excellent research and knowledge to deal with the issues at hand today, but also to look 10 years into the future to see how we might influence the landscape in which dentists will practice and ensure we are bringing excellent care to the people that live in the United States.

ADA News: In your efforts to reach out to dental students — who are facing mounting debt and economic uncertainties — what insights do you share with them?

Dr. Summerhays: What I tell new dentists and dental students is that their future is going to be great, because they will create their future. These are extremely bright students. They are highly adaptable. It's going to be very different from the way we practiced, and we cannot base our view of their future success through the lenses of our past. They will create their own success, and they will define what success is to them. Work-life balance is important to them. Something that does not change is that all of us want to provide excellent care for our patients. That's a constant, but how we measure success and what the environment will look like in which we practice will be very different. I encourage dental students and new dentists to take an active role in creating the future.

Part 2 of the interview will appear in the Nov. 2 ADA News.