Fueled by hard work, persistence, and determination, Cesar R. Sabates, D.D.S., rose from being a child of Castro-era Cuba to becoming the soon-to-be president of the American Dental Association.
His journey has not been without challenges. And when the 61-year-old Dr. Sabates is installed as the 158th president of the ADA during the Oct. 16 House of Delegates Meeting in Las Vegas, he will begin a leadership term heavily influenced by his personal and professional experiences.
“I want everyone to feel loved and welcomed into the association. I want to extend the same sense of caring and compassion that I received from mentors at a time when I felt that I didn’t belong. They made me feel welcome and that my voice mattered. Their support has shaped how I want to lead. Their support was instrumental to how I got here,” Dr. Sabates said.
So how did he get here?
‘Diversity of thought’
Dr. Sabates was born in Camaguey, Cuba, in 1960, the son of a dentist. When Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, his father wanted to leave the country but since he was a professional, and therefore useful, the government wouldn’t let him leave. The government punished him for even asking to leave so the senior Dr. Sabates was forced into different work camps to provide dental care for the people of Cuba.
But because the hygienic conditions were so poor at the time, Cesar L. Sabates, D.D.S. fell ill and was diagnosed by the Cuban government with a terminal illness.
“Once they diagnosed him, they said, ‘OK, you’re no good to us anymore. Now you can leave the country,’” Dr. Sabates said.
So in 1967, the Sabates family, four children at the time with one to be born in America, moved to the United States. Upon their arrival, his father went to the hospital and discovered he had a treatable lung infection, not a terminal illness. The Sabates family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, so the elder Dr. Sabates could attend dental school. He ultimately became an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
Dr. Cesar R. Sabates initially studied electrical engineering at the University of Miami. But he ultimately gave into his birthright and enrolled in dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I fell in love with the profession,” Dr. Sabates said. “I’ve been in love with it since the first day of dental school.”
After he graduated, Dr. Sabates moved to Miami and opened his solo practice from scratch. Slowly, through word of mouth, patients started coming and referring their friends and family.
Dr. Sabates wanted to get involved with organized dentistry, and he became an active member in a local dental study club, which was called the American Brotherhood of Latin American Dentists. He was asked to be a liaison between the group and the local dental association.
“In one of the first meetings, I got myself into trouble right away because they were discussing a dues increase, and I started asking questions about that. I was labeled for being very vocal, and some members didn’t want me to participate at all,” Dr. Sabates said. “But I kept going back to the meetings and became more and more involved. One of my mentors, Dr. Arturo Mosquera, appointed me to be the liaison between the study club and the local component society. He saw my passion, and when he later became president of the component society, he encouraged me to stay engaged with organized dentistry.”
Dr. Mosquera appointed Dr. Sabates chair of a committee that focused on women and diverse dentists. It was a springboard for more and more opportunities to lead within organized dentistry. Dr. Sabates rose from treasurer to president of the dental society before becoming a delegate to the Florida Dental Association and later president.
“When I finished that, I continued my service, and I ran for ADA trustee and then was elected overwhelmingly,” Dr. Sabates said. “I decided to run for ADA president-elect, and I never expected that I would get elected. But I was thrilled at the opportunity, and I worked really hard. I am still so thankful that the House of Delegates believed in me and elected me.”
After serving as president-elect for the past year, Dr. Sabates’ journey has informed how he wants to approach his presidency.
“One of the things that I want to highlight during my term as president is diversity of thought. Many times, people are intimidated. They don’t want to speak their mind because they feel that they’ll be ostracized. They’ll often go along to get along to avoid conflict. But the idea of politics as usual and maintaining the status quo doesn’t help us,” Dr. Sabates said.
“Diversity of thought is what makes us better. By listening to how members feel or how they think, and then all of us coming together to consensus and making a decision, that makes us a much better Board, makes us a better House, makes us a better organization. After hearing a different point of view, you may change your mind. And I have changed my mind many times after listening to an argument. But the ability to change minds requires us to have the courage to speak our convictions. I want to create a respectful environment that makes it safe for everyone to do so.”
Proud father and grandfather
When he isn’t seeing patients or attending meetings on behalf of the ADA, Dr. Sabates is spending time with his wife, two children and his grandson, Bruce, whom he calls “the love of my life.”
“I can’t tell you anything in my life that’s given me more joy than being a grandfather,” Dr. Sabates said. “I’ve always heard about how special grandkids are. I thank God that I have been able to experience it for myself.”
Named after Bruce Springsteen, Bruce is 1 year old and Dr. Sabates’ wife takes care of him every day. Dr. Sabates and his wife, Lydia, have been married for 28 years. They have two sons, Albert and Cesar Sabates III.
The Sabates family loves Disney World, and being Floridians and now grandparents, they get to spend a lot of time there.
“I also enjoy community service, giving career talks in elementary schools, participating in health screenings, volunteering for the Florida Mission of Mercy, and Donated Dental Services,” Dr. Sabates said. “I believe that I have been blessed and that it is my responsibility and duty to share my blessings with those that are less fortunate. I believe in that to whom much is given much will be required.”
Dr. Sabates wants to share his story in hopes he can connect with members, or prospective members, who may feel a distance from organized dentistry or their colleagues.
“I want to listen to as many people as I can,” Dr. Sabates said. “When I’ve been traveling, I’ve taken a little notebook with me, and when I talk to people, I jot down the things that they have felt throughout the years about what the ADA could be doing better. I want to set an example of how we can come together by listening to each other. I want to set a tone of empathy and connection throughout our organization. I want everyone to feel that they’re a part of a family and that family is the ADA family.”
Dr. Sabates was interviewed by Kelly Ganski, editor for the ADA News, in June.
ADA News: What are the biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic that could affect how the ADA and dentists approach a health crisis like this in the future?
Dr. Sabates: We must have the science that is necessary to guide us through difficult decisions. The ADASRI will play a vital role in this respect. We learned that the ADA can be nimble and that we must work together on all fronts in order to keep our profession strong and avoid any unnecessary intrusion by outside entities. We must continue to educate our governmental entities and that is where our advocacy efforts play a vital role.
ADA News: What do you think of the Association’s response to COVID-19?
Dr. Sabates: The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented. The ADA came together like never before to provide guidance to our profession to be able to reopen our practices safely. The ADA advocated Congress and the federal agencies on behalf of our members. Federal grants, loans and PPE were made available to all members.
ADA News: How has the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the value of the ADA to dentists? What resources did you find the most valuable as a dentist?
Dr. Sabates: The ADA was the go-to resource for getting our profession back to work. The up-to-date resources available to our members on ADA.org/virus were priceless.
ADA News: Are there any changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that you believe will remain permanent in dentistry?
Dr. Sabates: Dentistry has always been a leader in safety. Whether it is safely treating our patients or looking out for the safety and well-being of our staff, we have demonstrated being able to provide care in all situations. The research published in JADA and by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association has demonstrated that we have lower incidence of COVID-19 when compared to other medical professionals. I expect that the enhanced infection control protocols are here to stay.
ADA News: How can dentists encourage their patients to get vaccinated? How can dentists encourage their patients to return to the dental office and ensure their safety?
Dr. Sabates: As providers of essential health care, we play a significant role in guiding our patients to improving their overall health. Having regular discussions with our patients regarding smoking cessation and vaccinations like HPV, flu and COVID-19 should be an integral part of our care. Many times, patients see their dentist more often than they see their physicians. We can make a significant contribution to our society and our patients’ lives by informing them and guiding them to become more informed on health care issues. We must educate our patients on our record for safety. We can discuss the protocols we are taking to keep everyone in the dental office safe. I would recommend that all dentists visit ADA.org/virus to keep up to date on the latest advisories and recommendations.
ADA News: What are the three biggest issues facing the profession right now? What are the three biggest issues facing the Association right now? The same or different?
Dr. Sabates: For the profession, I would say COVID-19; third-party payer issues; and direct-to-consumer dentistry. For our association, I’d would say membership; our business model; and how we lead our profession into the future.
ADA News: Questions to the Association regarding dental benefits have skyrocketed in the past few years, according to the ADA Center for Dental Benefits, Coding and Quality. Why does this issue occupy many of our members’ minds, and what can the ADA do to showcase and boost its advocacy on this issue?
Dr. Sabates: We know that dental benefits and reimbursements are one of the topics that keep dentists awake at night. The ADA has been working hard in this arena, and we have the opportunity to build upon our ongoing efforts. The Fight Insurance Interference Task Force empowers state dental associations to enact the legislation that benefits the dentist. Anything that we can do as an association to help out our member dentists to fare better when it comes to third-party payers, that’s something that I’m very much in favor of. I’ll give you the perfect example. When I started my practice over 30 years ago, the maximum reimbursement per year was about $1,500. Today, that maximum continues to be $1,500 or less, maybe $1,000. And as you know, inflation has increased tremendously over the years, but that maximum marketplace of dental professionals. Right now, we’re in the process of evaluating what dentists value and would like to see from the ADA. Meeting our members’ needs requires us to look deeply into what members of various age groups, for example, value the most. It’s my personal opinion that every dentist should be a member of the American Dental Association. We should have a 100% market share, but we don’t. I do believe that we have an opportunity, each day, to get closer to that number. What I think will be invaluable to us in the future is providing dynamic and invigorating leadership. We need to charge our ADA delegates and our society leaders to excite their states about the value of membership.
ADA News: What are the challenges in recruiting more diverse dentists into leadership tracks within the Association governance structure?
Dr. Sabates: It’s certainly top of mind for our Board of Trustees. We are looking towards increasing diversity within our pipeline of councils and committees, whether it’s more women or younger dentists, more dentists of color, and more dentists of different practice types. We want to be an all-inclusive organization. At this stage of the game, our leadership really doesn’t represent that. The Board of Trustees should represent what our membership looks like, just like our House of Delegates should represent more what the grassroots members look like because each of us comes from a different background, so we have different points of view. And the beauty of that is that when we have discussions, we don’t all think the same.
ADA News: The Health Policy Institute recently published data that found that the dentist workforce does not reflect the U.S. population, with Black and Hispanic dentists significantly underrepresented in the profession. What can the ADA do to raise more awareness on racial disparities in oral health?
Dr. Sabates: The ADA is America’s leading advocate for oral health. As a dentist who is dedicated to improving the oral health of all Americans it’s important to recognize that our dental workforce does not represent the U.S. population. We need to do what is within our limits to advocate for underrepresented minorities in the educational system. There are many talented young students who simply don’t have the resources or mentors to help them on the path to dental school. The ADA needs to continue to advocate for diversity and inclusion. It will take time but by collaborating with the American Dental Education Association and other groups, we could make a significant impact on this issue.
ADA News: What is your insight on the status of the student debt issue? The ADA endorses Laurel Road, but what other steps is the Association taking or should take?
Dr. Sabates: The student debt situation is something that is extremely important to me. The cost of dental education continues to increase, and the amount of loans that are being taken out by students also continues to increase. We continue to advocate at the federal level for Congress to either consolidate these loans at a lower interest rate, to offer loan forgiveness, or to provide some type of relief similar to the Paycheck Protection Program. We’ve been advocating for that for years. This high cost of dental education and the burden of student debt create an obstacle for dentists from lower economic backgrounds. Students who have the grades and the smarts should not have to contend with these prohibitive cost barriers when they begin their dental education and career. The financial barriers often translate to the lack of diversity in our workforce. The increased diversity in dentistry is mostly attributed to the rise in Asian Americans entering the profession. There’s been some slight increase in Hispanics entering dentistry, but the percentage of African American dentists has remained stagnant for many years, and we have to do something to help improve that. We also have many more women in the profession now. I remember my father telling me the story that when he was in dental school, there was maybe one or two women in his class and now dental classes are more than 50% women, which is great.
ADA News: What is the ADA doing to address health equity? How can the ADA help dentists better meet the oral health care needs of underserved populations, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, older adults, people of color, patients on Medicaid, etc.?
Dr. Sabates: The COVID-19 crisis had shed light on a long-standing problem related to disparities in our health care system. The issue of health equity will continue to be a national priority for the foreseeable future. The Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention will be bringing a policy resolution to the 2021 House of Delegates. The ADA has provided several webinars with the hopes of educating everyone on this important issue. We will continue to work with advocates to ensure our mission to provide optimal health for all.
ADA News: Artificial intelligence is emerging as a popular new technology within dentistry. Why should members embrace this, and what does it mean for the future of a dental practice?
Dr. Sabates: AI is something that will add technology that will make us all better dentists. The thing that we need to remember is that there will never be an alternative to that human touch, that helping hand by a duly trained and licensed dental professional.
ADA News: How does the ADA Code of Ethics guide your leadership, both in organized dentistry and in your practice?
Dr. Sabates: The concept that ADA members recognize the need to adhere to high ethical standards of conduct has always appealed to me. The five fundamental principles that form the foundation of our ADA Code of ethics — patient autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice and veracity — supplement the religious beliefs that have been a cornerstone my personal as well as professional life.
ADA News: How does the ADA’s newly reimagined annual meeting, SmileCon, reflect the future of dental meetings? Why should dentists attend?
Dr. Sabates: I think that this year’s meeting is probably going to be one of the best meetings we’ve ever had. Just for the fact that we have been on these Zoom calls, we haven’t really had a chance to interact with each other face to face in such a long time, over a year. This reimagined meeting is going to put the ADA leadership out front and center where the members will have an opportunity to engage with us. We’ll be able to listen to them, and we’ll be able to exchange ideas. It’s going to be more of a family feeling, I believe. I think we’re going to be telling some interesting stories of some of our members. I think dental meetings will be changing after they get a little bit of a taste of what SmileCon’s going to be all about.
ADA News: What should members know about the work of the ADA Science & Research Institute?
Dr. Sabates: As professionals, it’s crucial that we continue increasing our science base. The ADASRI, which combined part of the science center that we had in Maryland with our in-house science department that we have at the ADA, is poised to be something fantastic by providing new technologies and new innovations for the practicing dentist. Think about the composites, new ways of curing, maybe self-healing composites, different things that can help a dental practitioner succeed in helping our patients have a healthier mouth. A basis in evidence is one of the ADA’s core values, and research is crucial for moving our profession forward. Without it, there wouldn’t be a profession. I’m looking forward to great things from the ADASRI.
ADA News: The ADA Board of Trustees named Raymond A. Cohlmia, D.D.S., as the new executive director. How will you help him in his new role?
Dr. Sabates: It’s going to be a challenge to replace Kathleen T. O’Loughlin, D.M.D. In her 12 years at the ADA, Dr. O’Loughlin has done magnificent work. She’s led the organization through some difficult times, and she’s brought the American Dental Association to a new level. Dr. Cohlmia will certainly carry the torch. I worked with Dr. Cohlmia on the Board of Trustees for many years, and we’ve become friends. He’s a very caring and astute individual, and I’m looking forward to working with him and doing great things. One of the things that I expect to do is go on a listening tour with Dr. Cohlmia and go to the different states and local dental associations and just listen to what the concerns of our members are.
ADA News: What have you learned during your career that you would most like to share with new dentists about the future they can expect?
Dr. Sabates: We cannot be frightened of change; we need to embrace it. Technology will continue to advance the profession, and we need to continue to learn and evolve. As professionals, we need to be dedicated to lifelong learning. One thing that will never change are those core concepts that we were taught in dental school. Don’t allow anyone to tell you, “That’s not the way we do things in the real world.” Stick to those core principles, and you can’t go wrong. With time comes experience, more confidence, speed, but the person in me has not changed in my passion to do well, to do the right thing, to increase my knowledge base and to give back. Always give back.
ADA News: Do you have priorities for your year as president?
Dr. Sabates: I have several priorities. One is my desire to make all dentists feel welcome at the ADA. I also want to more strongly communicate the value of ADA membership. We are not just providing access to resources and tools, we are offering community and relationships. One of my priorities is to also look at the ADA through a financial lens. We need to take a hard look at our business model to ensure that the ADA is able to stay relevant and in touch with our members’ future needs.