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FDI President Dr. Kathryn Kell globetrotting to spread the importance of oral health

August 09, 2018

By David Burger

Photo of Dr. Kell visiting children
Sharing smiles: Dr. Kathryn Kell, FDI president, talks to school children about the importance of oral health during a visit on World Oral Health Day in the city of Weinan in the Shaanxi province, in northwestern China. The province was the setting for the launch of the Smile Around the World project. FDI and 3M Oral Care teamed up to deliver oral health education and prevention programs through the Smile Around the World initiative. In partnership with the Chinese Stomatological Association, Smile Around the World aims to raise awareness of oral health in disadvantaged rural and urban communities through cultural and educational activities.
Davenport, Iowa — In early August, Dr. Kathryn Kell sold her practice here.

But that doesn't mean that she is done with dentistry.

Dr. Kell, the ADA's 10th District trustee from 2004-08, is in the middle of a two-year term as president of the FDI World Dental Federation, the principal representative body for more than 1 million dentists worldwide in more than 130 countries, including the U.S.

With FDI headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, Dr. Kell has circumnavigated the globe several times since becoming FDI president in September 2017.

"In May, I was home for only three days," Dr. Kell said.

In June and July alone, Dr. Kell traveled to Switzerland, China, Japan, Columbia, England and Minneapolis, speaking as a unified voice for dentistry in international advocacy and supporting member associations in global oral health promotion activities.

In between, she is in the midst of planning two international events — FDI world congresses later this month in Buenos Aires and San Francisco next year. The latter will be conducted alongside the ADA 2019 – America's Dental Meeting Sept. 5-9 in the Golden Gate City.

Raising the visibility of the FDI — which in turns increases the organization's leverage when it comes to advocacy and influence — is a major part of the president's responsibilities, and Dr. Kell is happy to do it. She said she is constantly reminding members of national dental organizations, including the ADA, that if you are a member of your national association, you are automatically a member of the FDI.

"I like to think of it as a part of the quad-partite," Dr. Kell said, alluding to the ADA, state and local dental societies having a tripartite membership structure.

The presidency is the culmination of more than two decades of purposeful advocacy for, and in, the FDI.

Dr. Kell is an Iowan through and through, graduating from Davenport West High School then the University of Iowa for both her bachelor's and dental degrees, with her interest in dentistry spurred by having an uncle and cousin as dentists. She also earned a master's in health care administration from Davenport's Saint Ambrose University. She maintained a general dentistry private practice in Davenport until selling her practice and plans on treating patients part-time after her presidency concludes.

Photo of children smiling
Happy mouths: Chinese school children in the city of Weinan in the Shaanxi province celebrate World Oral Health Day in March during a trip by FDI President Dr. Kathryn Kell to their school. The province was also the setting for the launch of the FDI project Smile Around the World.
Dr. Kell first began to have an interest in the FDI more than two decades ago. Since then, she spent nine years on the education committee, six years on the science committee, three years as FDI councilor from North America, and then four years as FDI treasurer. Before the presidency, she spent two years as president-elect.

"I have been working with Kathy for a very long time in the FDI," said Dr. Patrick Hescot, a French dentist and immediate past president of the FDI World Dental Federation. "When she was a committee member and then on the council I noticed her kindness towards the members and her ability to listen. When she became treasurer of the FDI her sense of rigor and clarity appeared to everyone, and of course when we talked about the post of president-elect, it seemed a good decision for the FDI — and me. During these two years, she was always in support of me to restore the FDI. Today the FDI is good financial health and has a strategy plan and business plan for the coming years, and I am very happy to know that with Kathy as president, the FDI will continue on this path."

Among the recent highlights of Dr. Kell's tenure was a March weeklong trip to the Fengyin Elementary School in China's Shaanxi province. The school served as the launch pad for the FDI's Smile Around the World project, a partnership with 3M Oral Care that aims to raise awareness of oral health in disadvantaged rural and urban communities through cultural and educational activities.

Image of FDI ADA San Francisco logo"We talked about the health policy implications of China revoking its one-child policy," Dr. Kell said. "As a result, the country is now expecting a baby boom in the coming years. To prepare for this enormous demographic challenge, China is now focusing on the oral health needs of children by developing an array of programs that will deliver improved access to dentists alongside evidence-based fluoride and sealant programs."

Another important June trip was to the United Nations in New York, where the FDI and ADA lobbied the body to ensure that oral health is included in the upcoming UN High-level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases on Sept. 27. Dr. Kell has been promoting that oral health is part of overall health globally, and advocacy at the UN is key to that effort, she said.

After the FDI World Dental Congress in early September, Dr. Kell has trips scheduled for Uruguay, India, Portugal and Germany, along with a stop in Honolulu for ADA 2018 – America's Dental Meeting, where she will see her predecessor Dr. Hescot receive ADA honorary membership.

Being president has been a worthwhile endeavor, even though Dr. Kell admits that reaching that level was never something she aspired to. "It's made my life more complete," she said.