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MyView: What is advocacy, anyway?

February 20, 2012

By Mary Jennings, D.D.S.

Advocacy. Ten years ago I had a vague idea of what that meant. Now, the spirit and work of advocacy is fully entrenched into my dental soul. Many of us consider it the most important member benefit.

To be terse, advocacy is how we keep well-intentioned fools from doing stupid things to, and with, our profession. In kinder terms, it is about how we get our core values and best practice concepts out to a world that thinks it has better things to do than listen to a bunch of dentists tell them how our profession should be run.

Advocacy should be easy. We impart our values to our patients every day. We tell them intimately what they need to ensure oral health. We are fabulous one on one.

For some strange reason, when we go public, things go crossways. Other parties chime in with their agendas. You know them—Kellogg, Pew, perhaps your hygienist.

We have allies, but they really do not make themselves available for the heavy lifting, and rightly so. It is our job. These days, battles take time and resources. While other associations may sign on in favor of our bills, their bodies stay at home awaiting their own fights.

What resources do we have? We have the power of "right." We are passionate about the care we give our patients, we study best practices and we have hands-on experience. They are amateurs in a pro league, and we need to constantly remind them that our knowledge, sincerity and expertise are powerful and deadly accurate. Our knowledge is not acquired by sitting around tables with other want-to-be dentists thinking big dental thoughts. We do not indulge in lame, nonevidenced based studies.

We have our "Dogs of War"—our grassroots advocates. I am one and you should be, too. We are the people who, as a group, blast the legislators with our well-formed points. Legislators track the volume of response to issues, so our voices truly count.

Remember how fabulous we are one on one? That is the most important link in our advocacy strategy. If you care enough about an issue to get up and do something about it, people take notice and a "buzz" is created around the issue. Many of our Washington State Dental Association members—like Mike Spektor, Doug Walsh and Rob Merrill—have cultivated relationships with their legislators. They get phone calls from them asking for their opinions on dental issues. I have not achieved that level of legislator confidence, but I am working on it. I always appreciate being able to tag along with them and develop my relationships.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that no dental association is an island. On the national level, the Council on Government Affairs and American Dental Political Action Committee work on our national issues and congressmen. I just finished my first year on CGA. I learned that with computer technology, reports can be embedded into reports making reading up on issues a formidable task! I am impressed with the scope and depth of issues that impact dentistry. While there are really no small issues, there are lesser ones, like addressing the Federal Trade Commission on how we label food marketed for children. Then there is the huge and looming Affordable Care Act, where we have to figure out how to weave dental benefits into a plan that both houses of Congress will find agreeable by 2014.

Not all issues impact all states. The midlevel problem is not nearly as significant for the southern states as it is for us. We are the first state that has had an insurance company reduce its reimbursement rates. Now, other insurance companies are following suit elsewhere. Because of our different needs, and to nip problems before they spread, the ADA developed the State Public Affairs Program in 2005. We are one of the 20 states that receive SPA funding, and we’ve been using it to help with access to care and midlevel issues.

Is it working? Yes! The ADA House of Delegates heartily approved its $3.5 million funding in October. That is a big deal when 30 states are not getting funded, and the ADA still supports the program that helps form pre-emptive strikes against madness. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, dental advocacy is happening around you, each and every day. Thousands of us are committed to keeping stupid things from happening to our profession and the people we love and care for.

Want to be one of the Dogs of War? I know you do! Contact your state dental society to find out how you can learn the ropes of building and maintaining a relationship with a legislator, and the importance and power of advocacy.

Join us. Somewhere there is an issue that needs your special touch. You will be fabulous.

Dr. Jennings is the editor of the WSDA News, the publication of the Washington State Dental Association. Her comments, reprinted here with permission, originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of that publication.