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‘We can always do better’

Dr. Jeffrey M. Cole outlines goals for his year to come as ADA president

September 17, 2018
Dr. Cole
Dr. Cole: He will be installed Oct. 22 as the 155th ADA president.
Childhood visits to the dentist were more than just check-ups or X-rays for Dr. Jeffrey M. Cole. His family dentist was a high school buddy of his father’s, so when young Jeff went to a dental appointment, it was a gathering of friends and family. His mom or dad would take him, and the doctor would chat with them. “It was almost a social visit. I just loved that environment,” he recalled.

No one in his family was in the health care field. His parents and sister all worked for the DuPont Company. But, he attributes the welcoming atmosphere of his childhood dental visits with leading him to decide by age 12 to become a dentist. That decision ultimately led him to open a practice in his hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, and to his ongoing involvement in local, state and national dental organizations. “Every decision I made starting with choosing what high school to go to, and what classes to take, was all in support of my goal to be a dentist,” he said.

It worked out so well that not only does he still have his own general practice, which he opened in 1993, Dr. Cole is also about to become the 155th president of the American Dental Association on Oct. 22 in ceremonies at the 2018 ADA House of Delegates in Honolulu.

He attended Villanova University in Philadelphia for his undergraduate degree, choosing it because he thought it would be a good preparation for dental school. Dr. Cole said the Villanova faculty had a great relationship with Georgetown University School of Dentistry, which was a major factor in his choosing Georgetown over the other dental schools to which he had been accepted. He graduated from Georgetown in 1986. While he concentrated in science and math as an undergrad, he also took some business courses at Villanova as well as Georgetown. After six years as an associate, he opened his own practice. He also returned to school at Temple University Fox School of Business, where he received his MBA in 1996.

The closing of Georgetown was one of the reasons Dr. Cole became an adamant advocate of student issues such as debt relief. “Georgetown wasn’t the first dental school to close. People always ask me, ‘Why are you so passionate about things like student debt?’ It’s because I’ve seen the devastation that occurs when people outside of our profession make decisions that affect our profession. Georgetown closing was the result of a federal government take-back of incentives for dental schools. Schools like Fairleigh Dickinson and Emory closed for the same reason.”

During dental school one of his jobs was in the admissions office, taking care of registrations for continuing education courses. His experience there remains a reminder to him of how vulnerable students can be.

“The dean of admissions came over to my desk, pushed all my work to the side, and put down a list of applications, and said, ‘I want you to call all of these undergraduate students,’” he recalled. “‘They’ve all been accepted to Emory. Emory just announced they are closing. I want you to call them and talk them into coming to Georgetown instead.’ So I did that. I continue to be passionate about issues that affect students like student debt in part because some of those people came to Georgetown because I called them. And they were students at Georgetown when the school announced it was closing. I thought I was doing them a favor only to find out Georgetown fell victim to the same outside influences.”

Dr. Cole and his wife, Linda, met at Villanova as undergraduates, where she was a business major. This summer they celebrated their 34-year anniversary, having married while he was in dental school. When he was ready to start as an associate, his wife, after having a career in a different city, took the job of business manager at the same practice. When Dr. Cole started his own practice, six years later, she became his business manager and has been managing his office ever since. They both feel very blessed to be an active part of an amazing profession, one that has become a second family to them.

During his general practice residency in Delaware at the Christiana Care Health System, Dr. Cole met Dr. Nick Russo, who volunteered in the residency clinic. The group in his GPR wanted to start a study club after they finished their residency and contacted the Academy of General Dentistry, to see how they could be approved for CE credit. The AGD directed them to Dr. Russo. He came to their meetings, and eventually encouraged Dr. Cole to get more involved.

“He told me, ‘Well, you’ve been approved for your continuing education credit, but I also have something else in mind for you.’ And so with his encouragement I got more involved and eventually became the president of the Academy of General Dentistry for the state of Delaware at the age of 29.”

Always motivated to get involved, Dr. Cole also headed local arrangements after his first year of membership in the Delaware State Dental Society. “That meant I was in charge of working the front door at the general membership dinner meetings. It was a great opportunity to get to know my colleagues.”

Because of Dr. Russo’s example, Dr. Cole sees himself encouraging students and new dentists to get involved. “If I see students who seem to be good leaders, and I see there are opportunities to get them involved, I try to make connections.”

In addition to his presidency of the Delaware AGD, Dr. Cole served as Delaware State Dental Society president and as national AGD president. He was the ADA 4th District trustee prior to his role as ADA president-elect. He is a former chair of the ADA Budget and Finance Committee, the ADA Strategic Planning Committee and the ADA Business Model Project Oversight group. Dr. Cole is a member of the American College of Dentists, Delta Sigma Delta International Dental Fraternity and the International College of Dentists. He served in numerous leadership roles in both the state and national AGD and ADA.

Dr. Cole
Office: Dr. Cole poses at ADA Headquarters in Chicago this summer.
Dr. Cole was interviewed by Judy Jakush, ADA News editor, during the summer. Part 1 of the Q&A follows here.

ADA News: How do you describe your leadership style?

Dr. Cole: My leadership style is one of being very collaborative. I want to hear everybody’s ideas. I want to vet whoever’s in the room. We’ve done that, for instance, with the business model project. We were making some innovative, and I want to say scary, decisions that were really out of the norm of business as usual. And we had a great group in there, including the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee, leadership, senior management, finance staff and support staff. We went around the room, seeking input from everyone there. And one of the individuals said, “Oh, I’m staff.” I said, “Are you sitting in this room?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Do you have an opinion?” And I knew he did. He said, “Oh, yeah.” I said, “Then I want to hear it.” And it’s gathering all those ideas, being collaborative and inclusive that moves us forward.

The other thing is that we can always do better. I’m not a type of person that celebrates mediocrity. I’m somebody that celebrates success, but the celebration is very short lived. Let’s do a high five, let’s feel good about ourselves, and let the conversation immediately go to, how can we get even better? We are in a climate that is much different, say since 2008, whether it’s the practice of dentistry, whether it’s the world of business, things have changed dramatically for a whole lot of reasons. And because of that, I think the only way we stay ahead is to constantly try to make ourselves better.

Sometimes I get feedback that I’m kind of hard on people, or hard on myself. I find that people are much happier when they start realizing accomplishments that they never knew were possible. I’ve seen it here in the ADA and in other organizations. I like to bring people to their highest potential.

ADA News: What do you see as the biggest issues facing the profession right now? What are the biggest issues facing the Association? And do you equate the profession with the Association, or are these going to be the same or different things?

Dr. Cole: With the profession, one of the things really affecting us is student debt. The challenge is how we can help new dentists succeed financially, but also support them in delivering what’s best for patients.

Another major challenge for the profession is that there are people who are not in good oral health. We have done a lot; we work diligently to help improve oral health, but as long as there are people who are not in good oral health, that challenge remains.

There are factors beyond economics changing the profession, such as technology, advances in science, professional uncertainty and outside influences. Some of these things may be disrupters to our profession, but I think that we can move the profession forward in a very positive way as long as we make sure that we remain true to the foundation of what makes us professionals. That means that the business and practice of dentistry must remain true to the trust that’s been placed in us by our patients.

That’s on the profession side. The ADA’s challenge is also the fact that there are people who aren’t in good oral health, and we need to change that.

The ADA as an organization has to be financially sustainable into the future. We have a 150-year history, and we have to make sure that we can continue into the future.

The ADA has to remain relevant, and not only with the general public, but within our profession, and with our members. That’s an issue that ties the profession and the organization together. We have to offer a solution to help our members be more efficient, to deliver better oral health care. If we offer that through good business methods on the ADA side, we can take care of all those challenges. It’s a really big lift, but I’m confident that we can do it.

ADA News: Here’s another basic question, why are you a member of the Association? Why should a nonmember join?

Dr. Cole: The reason that I’m a member is because I think that it’s extremely important that we support what basically powers our profession, the ADA. It does that so that all of our members can succeed in delivering good oral health. We do that through science, through standards, through advocacy and more. Some people look at what benefits them individually, and we have to show them how the ADA is relevant to them.

If the profession can be more efficient in how we deliver care, if we could make member dentists who are in this husband-and-wife, mom-and-pop and small group office settings successful, then we achieve all those goals of oral health and everything else. I think that it’s incumbent upon us to do that.

If we do it in the right way, we not only achieve that relevance, but we connect with those individuals who say I need a little bit more for my membership — those who ask, “What’s in it for me?” We are working towards that, and we should never lose sight of the big picture. That means imagining what would happen if we weren’t here. Try envisioning the world if the ADA wasn’t here. Not just today, but for the last 150 years. Ask yourself, where would the profession be? As a professional, maybe you’ll see the answer is to be part of the Association.

ADA News: Do you have priorities for your year as president?

Dr. Cole: I know I’m here for a short period of time. I want to make the biggest difference I can, but to set priorities that aren’t in step with the strategic direction of the Board and that aren’t in step with the strategic plan of the organization and the operational goals would be counterproductive. When leadership changes in some groups, the new leader will take everybody in a different direction. I think that’s very disruptive.

My goals are very broad and overarching: to become more relevant to members who particularly need some individual attention and to make sure that we keep the organization financially sound by doing that. We achieve this by helping members be very successful in delivering care to their patients, which brings us again to the other big goal, to increase oral health and overall health.

Part 2 of the interview will appear in the next issue of the ADA News.