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Dr. Chad P. Gehani: Transforming the face of dentistry

August 05, 2019
Dr. Gehani
Dr. Gehani: He will be installed Sept. 9 as the 156th ADA president.

When 24-year-old Dr. Chad P. Gehani arrived at the airport in Mumbai, India, in 1975, he had never even seen an airplane. Dr. Gehani was wearing a three-piece suit with a one-way ticket to New York City. He had a dental degree from the Government Dental College and Hospital Mumbai but no promise of any job in the United States — especially one in dentistry — and was leaving behind his parents, four siblings and the girlfriend who would ultimately become his wife, Dr. Rekha Gehani.

He knew a single soul in America; a former classmate who agreed to let Dr. Gehani sleep on his couch for three nights. After that, he was on his own.
 
The next day, Dr. Gehani found a job on Fifth Avenue and 28th Street as a cleaning man. He was paid $3.75 an hour to unload trucks and clean the streets, warehouse and toilets.
 
Three months later, Dr. Gehani landed a job in hospital working as a dental assistant and began taking the national board of dental examinations, which started him down the path that would allow him to be recognized as a dentist in the United States. Nine months later, he was allowed to begin practicing dentistry. Dr. Gehani joined the American Dental Association in 1977, and five years after his plane landed, he became an American citizen.

“It was a matter of pride for me to be a member of the largest and most resourceful organization globally, not just in the United States,” Dr. Gehani said. “Even in India, when I was a dental student, I didn’t know that New York had snow. But I knew one thing: There is something called the American Dental Association. So it was a matter of pride for me to join. I called my father and said, ‘I’m now an American citizen and now a member of the ADA.’ He was very proud and actually said to me, ‘I want to see you president of that association.’ And of course in my mind that was not doable for me so I just laughed at him. That was not in my cards.”
 
Dr. Gehani with his parents
Headed for America: Dr. Gehani puts his arms around his parents at the airport in Mumbai, India, before he leaves for the United States in 1975.
But, it was very much in the cards. Dr. Gehani will be installed as the 156th president of the ADA on Sept. 9 in ceremonies at the 2019 House of Delegates in San Francisco. He is the first internationally trained dentist and naturalized American citizen to be the president of the ADA.
 
The path to the ADA presidency was a long one. Thousands of miles geographically and perhaps even metaphorically, as it’s not something Dr. Gehani ever dreamed could happen.
 
Dr. Gehani was born in Mumbai to a poor, Hindu refugee family. His father worked as an accountant, but the family could not afford to visit the one dentist in their area.
 
 “Only rich people went to the dentist,” Dr. Gehani said. “Poor people, like myself, if we had a toothache, we just stuffed the tooth with cotton soaked with eugenol and the pain subsided. Or, you could go to a street doctor and have the tooth pulled.”
 
It was the unaffordability and inaccessibility to oral health care that prompted Dr. Gehani to pursue a career in dentistry. He enrolled in the Government Dental College and Hospital Mumbai, where he paid less than the equivalent to $100 for four years for his education. The Indian government paid for more than 99% of his education. Dr. Gehani was always one of the top three students at the university.
 
After he graduated, Dr. Gehani worked more than 12 hours a day doing extractions in one of the local clinics. He would get to keep 25% of the fee for the extractions he was doing. At five rupees per extraction, Dr. Gehani was pocketing the equivalent of about 20 cents for each tooth he pulled.

“I wanted to go to the United States to further my education and make a decent living,” Dr. Gehani said.
 
Dr. Gehani with his wife, Dr. Rekha Gehani
Family business: Dr. Gehani poses with his wife, Dr. Rekha Gehani, who is an orthodontist and the chair of the ADA Council on Dental Licensure. 
In 1965, the ADA House of Delegates declared a shortage of dentists in the U.S., Dr. Gehani said. In turn, the American government made it relatively easy for internationally trained dentists to immigrate to the United States. All it took for Dr. Gehani was a walk to the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai and a $25 application fee to set the process in motion.

Once in New York, Dr. Gehani had to take two national board exams, sit for a bench test and take a final clinical exam before his Indian dental degree would be recognized and he would be considered an American dentist. After that, he enrolled in the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine to specialize in endodontics.
 
“Endodontics was the field where I had my weakest training, and I like challenges,” Dr. Gehani said. “In India, they teach you prosthetics and extractions very well. They did not teach us endodontics as it is practiced in the United States. So that was the field I wanted to learn so I could go back to India and teach endodontics there.”
 
And he did. Dr. Gehani would travel up to five times a year — on his own dime — to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to teach at various universities and offer dental services to the poor. At one point, in 1986, Dr. Gehani had a job offer in India to be the dean of the dental school, but his wife insisted they remain in the United States.
 
Dr. Gehani met Dr. Rekha Gehani while they both attended dental school in India. It was “love at first sight” he said, but she remained in India when he moved to the United States. Fifteen months later, in 1977, he had saved up enough money to return to Mumbai and bring her back to the U.S. They were married that year.
 
The Gehanis remained partners in life, education and profession. After they both graduated from Columbia, the Gehanis went into private practice together; he as an endodontist and she as an orthodontist. They both taught part-time at Columbia, he for one year and she for 30. Dr. Gehani has also taught at the New York University College of Dentistry since 1982 as an assistant clinical professor, associate clinical professor and now as an adjunct associate professor. Dr. Rekha Gehani is currently the chair of orthodontics at Flushing Hospital Medical Center and Brookdale University Hospital for the residency programs.

The Gehanis are also both active in organized dentistry. Dr. Rekha Gehani is currently the chair of the ADA Council on Dental Education and Licensure.
 
“It’s a lot of fun. We have a common interest so we have a lot of things to argue about and a lot of things to be very much concerned about,” said Dr. Gehani, who added that his wife is his biggest and best critic.
 
Their passion for dentistry, and the health care field in general, was also passed down to their three children. Drs. Daniel Gehani and Kiren Gehani-Patel are orthodontists and Dr. Neal Gehani is an otolaryngologist. Their spouses are also all medical professionals. They’ve given the Gehanis five grandchildren with the sixth set to be born right after Dr. Gehani is installed as president in September.

Dr. Gehani at ceremony
Distinguished: Dr. Gehani arrives at a ceremony in 2015 honoring him with the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
Dr. Gehani was interviewed by Kelly Ganski, deputy editor for the ADA News, during the summer. Part I of the Q&A follows here.
 
ADA News: What are the three biggest issues facing the profession and the Association currently?
 
Dr. Gehani: The issues are different, yet very interconnected. For the profession, consumerism. Our patients look upon us as the providers of service. They look for convenience and cost effectiveness. The days of a dentist hanging a small sign in the window and patients coming to you by word of mouth are long gone. Web presence, long, convenient office hours and cheaper services are here to stay. Cybersecurity is another issue that we need to work on. Here’s what happens in many cities. You go to your office, and you turn your computer on, and your computer is not giving you any information. You see a message from somebody telling you, you need to pay $25,000 or else your computer is held hostage. And that’s not limited just to dentistry, but that’s business in general. But now there are dentists who are having a similar issue. The ADA has resources on the ADA Center for Professional Success website, Success.ADA.org, to help members protect themselves from cybersecurity scams. As far as issues facing the Association, the ADA must work tirelessly to be relevant to all dentists. Do our members and potential members see us as the primary source of all dental information? Are we providing the same type service to our members that successful corporations provide to their customers? Are we accessible to our members at their fingertips on their cell phones both via a web service as well as a call center? Are we user friendly in granting membership benefits to our potential members? These are some of the issues that can be resolved with some time and investment of money. Having a business background, I would like us to work on this. The ADA must anticipate the needs of our members so that if a member has a problem that is new to them, the ADA is already prepared with answers. We have been struggling with membership. When I was on the Council on Membership, our market share was 71% and we were complaining and aimed to increase to 75%. We never got to that stage. The point I’m making is, we have always struggled on convincing our future members to join us. Why should we be struggling on that ground? If we have services that the dentists appreciate, wouldn’t they be joining us on their own?

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