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MyView: Why I'm in for life

April 18, 2016

By Joseph Sokolowski, D.D.S.

Dr. Sokolowski
We've been spending a lot of time discussing membership this year at the Missouri Dental Association, particularly member loyalty. Why do some members stay in the tripartite, while others opt out, and still others seem to alternate between periods of membership followed by periods of inactivity? This has caused me to reflect upon my own membership in the ADA/MDA/Greater St. Louis Dental Society and my continuing loyalty to organized dentistry.

There was a time in my dental career when the annual ritual of writing the check for my tripartite dues was not the automatic act it has become but one that involved much thought and financial analysis. There were years when I gave serious consideration to dropping out of the ADA tripartite organization. The expense was significant for a new practitioner with multiple practice loans, a new baby and a very simple lifestyle. The tripartite system itself was a mystery. The local Greater St. Louis Dental Society component seemed OK. I had met some of the older dentists and they were friendly enough, and the local meetings were a way to get out of the office and meet some other colleagues. However, the Missouri Dental Association and the American Dental Association were just big, faceless bureaucracies that seemed to be extensions of the same establishment hierarchies that I had resented in dental school. What did those people do with all that dues money? Why can't I join Greater St. Louis but not the other two? Maybe next year I'll just save the money and drop out.

Then came the great Occupational Safety and Health Administration tussle of the mid-to-late 1980s. The AIDS epidemic of that period spawned an era of threatened increased regulatory involvement in the day-to-day practice of dentistry. Perhaps the lowest point came after it was reported that a Florida dentist had passed HIV to multiple patients. Blood was now considered to be as dangerous as radioactive waste, and random, unannounced office inspections by state or federal regulatory control personnel appeared imminent. Rumors of draconian rules and enforcement measures ran rampant. One could easily imagine a dental operatory that was modeled after a hospital operating room, with everyone and everything draped in multiple layers of protective coverings, and sterilized, disinfected and sanitized into oblivion. And that was just for the initial exam.

The only advocates (I'm not sure that word had been invented yet) we had were those faceless bureaucrats at the ADA and MDA. In fact, they did a great job of minimizing the intrusion into our office, while protecting the public and urging us to take long overdue measures like routinely wearing gloves, and implementing more stringent (but reasonable) sterilization and disinfection procedures. The ADA published a very useful "Regulatory Compliance Manual" that simplified the compliance process.

Shortly thereafter, at one of the Greater St. Louis golf events, a group of us were sharing thoughts on life and dentistry over beers. The topic of ADA/MDA/GSLDS membership was raised, and I voiced my usual reservations about high dues, bureaucracies, value, etc. One of the guys opined that he had felt that way at one time but was now a committed lifetime member based on the fact the ADA had saved us from so much federal regulation. That was enough for him. He added that this threat of governmental meddling was sure to continue and that anyone who enjoyed the benefits of organized dentistry's assistance without helping to pay for the process (by being a dues-paying tripartite member) would be a freeloader.

I think it was the use of the term "freeloader" that really got my attention. I like to think of myself as an independent free thinker, or rugged individualist, but never as a freeloader. I had to agree with my colleague. If the ADA was going to protect us from unwanted intrusion into our professional lives, and help us through the process of necessary change, then the least I should do was to pick up my relatively small share of the tab. In my eyes, to not do so would be as shameful as stealing.

Since then, I've gotten more involved in all levels of the tripartite membership. I've gotten to know the MDA staff, and I know them to be the total antithesis of the faceless bureaucrats I had imagined. I've been a delegate to the ADA House, and while some of the ADA hierarchy can still seem a tad distant, I've met scores of down-to-earth, devoted people — delegates, alternates, officers and staff — who are dedicated to protecting the interests of the profession, its individual practitioners, and the public whom we serve. That's why I'm in for life.

I hope we can continue to bring nonmembers into the fold and show them what the national, state and local organizations can and will do for them in their professional years of practice, so that, like me, they'll be in for life, too.

This editorial, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of MDA Focus, the publication of the Missouri Dental Association. Dr. Sokolowski is the former president of the MDA.