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'Dentistry is a lifetime learning process'

Dr. Gary L. Roberts set for role as ADA president

October 03, 2016 Camaraderie, sharing of knowledge and coming together to do something good for others are all part of what being an Association member has meant for Dr. Gary L. Roberts.

The Shreveport, Louisiana, general dentist will bring his 42 years' experience in organized dentistry to the helm of the American Dental Association when he is installed as its 153rd president Oct. 24 in Denver before the ADA House of Delegates.

Dr. Roberts: He will be installed Oct. 24 in Denver as the 153rd ADA president. Photo by Dr. Mark Bauman
He will also be the second dentist from Louisiana to serve as president of the American Dental Association. His predecessor was Dr. Clement Victor Vignes, who served nearly 100 years ago, from 1918-19.

As a child growing up on a farm near Lubbock, Texas, Dr. Roberts made up his mind to become a dentist and he never strayed from that idea. He left home at 17 to attend Louisiana State University ("Because it was 813 miles from that farm"), returned to Texas for dental school at Baylor College of Dentistry and started his general dental practice in his wife Teresa's hometown of Shreveport.

There was no one in the health profession in his family: he picked a path as a child and he stuck to it, which the now-retired general practitioner says is his approach to most decisions.

"Of course, things were a lot different back then. You had to make your own way, and if you wanted to do something out of the ordinary that was unusual for your family, you didn't get a whole lot of support, most times. I just made up my mind that was what I wanted to do and am very thankful that I married somebody that was very young and very supportive," he recalls.

One topic of conversation touched on during a summer interview is how he rose to leadership in organized dentistry — why go to local meetings in Shreveport? Why work at the state level in Louisiana?

"A lot of it was the camaraderie with other dentists," he recalls. "We didn't have an internet back then. Nobody had computers. You couldn't look up anything you wanted to know on your phone — although we all know everything on the internet is absolutely true," he quips, and then pushes on, describing his involvement in organized dentistry. "It was about being around people who came together to do good things. We helped the public. We had a dental health center where we treated kids that fell between the cracks, the ones that weren't eligible for Medicaid but their parents were below a certain income level. It was fun and it felt like you were doing some good."

After graduating dental school, Dr. Roberts spent a year at Baylor teaching in the pediatric dentistry department, mulling whether he wanted to specialize. "I decided I didn't. I decided I liked gold work way too much. I went into private practice in Shreveport in 1978." He is now retired from active general practice, instead immersing himself in his leadership duties at the national level.

Before delegates chose him as president-elect at the 2015 ADA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Roberts had served four years as the Association's 12th District trustee, representing Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He is a past member of the ADA Council on Ethics, Bylaws and Judicial Affairs and Council on Government Affairs and was chair of the Committee on Budget and Finance. He served as a trustee liaison to the Council on Dental Practice, Council on Annual Sessions and the Council on Dental Education and Licensure.

Family: Dr. Gary Roberts and his wife, Teresa, sit with grandson Caleb. Standing, from left, are son Joshua, daughter-in-law Stephanie and son Zachary.
He is also a past president of the Louisiana Dental Association and the Northwest Louisiana Dental Association. He is a past speaker of the LDA House of Delegates and past editor of the Journal of the Louisiana Dental Association. He received the LDA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award in 2007.

Dr. Roberts is a member of the Academy of General Dentistry and Ark-La-Tex Academy of Dentistry. He is a fellow of the American College of Dentists, International College of Dentists and the Pierre Fauchard Academy.

The incoming president and his wife, Teresa, have two sons: Zachary (married to Stephanie) and Joshua; and one grandson, Caleb.

He says he used to have time for hobbies, but when he's able to take a break, he still enjoys fly fishing, golf and hunting.

Dr. Roberts was interviewed by Judy Jakush, ADA News editor, and the Q-and-A follows:

ADA News: What are your main priorities this year?

Dr. Roberts: There are several things I'd like to see done. One of them is licensure portability and not only for our students who are graduating. We have many, many instances where we have husband and wife teams; perhaps one is in the military and the other can't practice unless he or she takes another $2,500 or $3,000 state board. Those are the people I worry about the most of all. Every regional exam is psychometrically the same. There is no reason why every state board shouldn't accept every exam.

We currently have a task force we are working with. We are beginning to go state by state on this issue, meeting with state boards. If that is what it takes to resolve this issue, then I'm willing to do that.

Long-term, if we in the profession can't make these changes, then I worry about someone else from an outside government agency coming in and doing it for us. I'd rather we solve our own problems.

ADA News: Do you have another top priority for the year?

Dr. Roberts: I would like to see the House of Delegates turn the budget over to the Board. The way we do the budget now for a $133 million-plus organization is insane. We began the 2017 budget process in the fall of 2015. Over the years we've had everything from a $10 million surplus to a $1.8 million deficit simply because you cannot predict your income and your expenses that far in advance. Also, we need to go to a three-year rolling budget, and the House can't do it because one House of Delegates cannot encumber another. We need to be able to adjust things on the fly to be more nimble so we can serve our members better. It's a 19th century business structure that was created in a time of infrequent communication.

I believe we can change the process, but I am not sure it can happen this year. This is not a power grab by trustees but is something that for logistics' sake needs to be done. The House would still control the budget by setting the dues and of course, it is the policy-making body of the Association. The budget is there to support the strategic plan, which has the organization's goals and objectives. The strategic plan drives the budget, not the other way around.

ADA News: Other goals for the year?

Dr. Roberts: If we get those two things done, we're doing pretty well. Let's not overreach here.

ADA News: Speaking of the strategic plan, Objective 2 is focused on membership, and in particular on dental students and new dentists. How do you evaluate the challenges facing young dentists today, especially when you think back on your start in dental practice?

Dr. Roberts: It was a totally different world when I was a dental student. At the time, the state paid about 80 percent of the cost of dental education. My tuition at Baylor was $175 a quarter. Our costs, including buying our supplies and other expenses, wereabout $3,000 a year. Everybody in the family worked, and we got out of school not owing anybody a nickel. I borrowed $35,000 to set up a practice and wondered how I was ever going to pay that back.

When I talk to young dentists and tell them this, they kind of just roll their eyes like I don't have a clue. I really do have a clue. The state paid 80 percent when I went and now it pays less than 10 percent. And that is why dental education is so expensive now. I don't foresee the state ever paying the same percentage they paid when I went. The money is just not there.

ADA News: In your meetings with students and new dentists, is there any advice you give them?

Dr. Roberts: Yes. One thing that is so important is that every dentist who has ever graduated has the same thing in common. They don't have a clue as to how much they don't know. Dentistry is a lifetime learning process. And you will spend the rest of your life learning techniques and better ways to treat your patients.

ADA News: And at your meetings with students and new dentists, what do they ask you about?

Dr. Roberts: New dentists talk about student debt; students don't talk about it a lot. I found going around the country that most students are more interested in portability of licensure than in student debt. Six months after graduation, student debt all of a sudden becomes extremely important to them.

That's why the Association set up our program with DRB (Darien Rowayton Bank), which offers a refinancing plan that can get them a rate 0.25 percent lower than DRB's regular rates. DRB has made over $300 million in loans with an acceptance rate of 75 percent. And this was in less than a year. I would rate that a resounding success. DRB has another program in which they will refinance people currently enrolled in specialty graduate programs. They can pay as little as $100 a month on the debt until they graduate in their specialty residency.

Part 2 of the interview will appear in the Oct. 17 ADA News.