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MyView: Shaking up the dental foundation

March 19, 2018

By F. Emelia Sam, D.D.S.

Photo of Dr. Sam
F. Emelia Sam, D.D.S.
Weaving my way through the crowds at the ADA 2017 in Atlanta was no easy feat. There was something specific I wanted to see and it required me to repeatedly walk the expanse of the Georgia World Congress Center. As a self-professed introvert, the hustle and bustle of varied agendas was, at times, quite disorienting. However, I was determined to attend this event for the first time.

Since completing my surgery residency in 2001, I've had a healthy respect for organized dentistry — albeit from a distance. Its importance cannot be overstated in regard to promoting oral health, providing clinical and ethical standards and shaping the vision for the advancement of our profession. That being said, I have long felt there was a critical piece that remained unaddressed — at least in a conspicuous manner.
Traditionally, in our spaces of gathering, attendees have looked forward to: clinical continuing education, intensive hands-on workshops, practice management information, new technology, networking events, etc. All of these things are incredibly important. They speak to productivity, efficiency and competence, which directly relate to success.

Until relatively recently, the emphasis has been placed on the performance with much less regard for the performer.

If we are serious about the enhancement and protection of the profession as a whole, we must be serious about the enhancement and protection of the individuals contributing to said profession. Indeed, this is the charge of every industry, but I believe it to be especially important in the realm of health care. How are we to provide optimal care if we are not optimally caring for ourselves?

This is not to say that issues of well-being had gone completely unnoticed. Burnout and addiction have been topics addressed over the years. However, that seemed to be an after-the-fact approach. Knowing the inherent stresses of the job and the weight of responsibility we hold, what had we been doing in a consistent manner proactively?

That is why the integration of the Wellness Studio at the annual meeting was such a big draw for me. When I learned the ADA had a featured space dedicated to well-being at the previous meeting, I knew I had to attend — despite my aversion to crowds. Having been in the realm of wellness and personal development for over a decade, I was eager to see how the concept would be received by my colleagues.

I was delighted to witness overwhelming interest in the sessions offered. Furthermore, the audiences weren't made up of individuals already inclined to this way of being. Many were curious about bettering their quality of life and unsure of how to go about it. They were excited to have presentations offered within this forum. Rather than be left to seek out such information on their own, they were able to explore this territory amongst their peers.

Clinician well-being is a quickly growing conversation, and I'm glad to see that dentistry is a part of it. The ADA is one of 130+ organizations committed to the National Academy of Medicine's Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience. As we address this internally, we must also be part of the larger dialogue that includes all caregivers.  
There will be those who will be resistant. Perhaps they believe that matters of physical, emotional and mental well-being should be personal endeavors. They think that what matters most is providing services and obtaining the highest compensation possible. They aim to perfect systems. I would invite them to consider this crucial point.

You can build the most luxurious and breathtaking structure, but if your foundation is questionable, you run the risk of collapse. Your practice is the structure. Your well-being is your foundation.

I look forward to seeing how we navigate this terrain in the coming years. Wellness is currently trending but understand that it is not a fad. Inside and outside of health care, people are becoming increasingly interested in well-being and personal fulfillment. When we enter the doors of our professional spaces, those interests mustn't be left at the threshold.

After all, we enter those doors as whole individuals.

While we inhabit these spaces, it's comforting to know that our needs are being addressed comprehensively. Rather than eclipse our humanity, the profession is choosing to embrace it.

Dr. F. Emelia Sam is a clinical associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Howard University.