George Shepley, D.D.S., eyes collaboration as he assumes role of ADA president
Dr. Shepley will take office at SmileCon in Houston Oct. 18
As a 16-year-old in Inwood, West Virginia, Dr. Shepley worked in the apple orchards owned by the Musselman Applesauce plant, trimming and planting trees and doing other farm work. Born in Pittsburgh, Dr. Shepley moved with his mother to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia after his parents separated.
The first and only time Dr. Shepley went to the dentist as a child was to fill a large cavity when he was 11. His parents were from the Depression era, didn’t have a lot of money and preventive dentistry wasn’t exactly top of mind.
“I was very anxious and fearful,” he said. “The dentist said that with the new, high-speed drills that it would not hurt. He lied. It hurt like crazy.”
Dr. Shepley’s family couldn’t afford orthodontic treatment, so he had buck teeth into adulthood; being called a beaver by friends and classmates. It was a very rural area, and some kids didn’t even have indoor bathrooms at home. Many dropped out of high school and few went to college, said Dr. Shepley, who described himself at the time as “unsophisticated” and “a country boy.” But seeing his surroundings and working hard labor at the applesauce plant made him want to create a better life for himself.
Fast forward 54 years. Dr. Shepley’s daily wear is either a lab coat in the dental office or a suit and tie as he travels the country on behalf of the ADA as president-elect. His time is spent discussing his dislike for how much sugar is consumed in America, moving the Association forward technologically and how the ADA can be more inclusive, whether it be based on a member’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or even mode of practice.
Dr. Shepley, 69, will be installed as the 159th president of the ADA during the Oct. 18 House of Delegates meeting in Houston, and he’ll spend the next year expanding these passions.
Country boy to dental leader
Dr. Shepley’s involvement in organized dentistry was not a given for him. After graduating from the West Virginia University School of Dentistry, he became an associate in a practice in Baltimore.
“It wasn’t the best situation, to be honest. There wasn’t much mentorship or oversight, and I was just sort of left on my own,” Dr. Shepley said. “Which was OK. I was a little burned out and tired of being poor and wanted to just get out and experience life a little bit. It was a relatively easier job. I wasn’t particularly career-oriented at that time.”
But then Dr. Shepley met his wife, Ellen, and started having kids, which changed his perspective. He decided it was time to get serious about his career. He opened his own practice and, after some encouragement, joined the Academy of General Dentistry and the tripartite of the Baltimore City Dental Society, Maryland Dental Association and American Dental Association.
“I was mostly alone in practice, and I like being in a group,” Dr. Shepley said. “Since there were no computers and almost no commercial continuing education available, I enjoyed going to my local component’s regular CE courses for the education and camaraderie. AGD was also the only other provider of CE and in fact was the only group that required CE to maintain membership. There was no mandatory CE for licensure then. This is where I found mentorship with fellow dentists and fed my love for CE.”
He ultimately achieved Fellowship and Mastership awards within the AGD, and the Life-Long Learning and Service Recognition Award. He served as chair of AGD Dental Education Council before becoming a trustee for six years. He became more comfortable within organized dentistry and moved his way up through the tripartite, ultimately becoming the chair of the ADA Council on Communications and a member of the Board of Trustees. Dr. Shepley also participates in Donated Dental Services through the Dental Lifeline Network.
“I have always been inspired by those dentists that have dedicated their lives to being the best dentist they can be and providing quality oral health care,” Dr. Shepley said. “I have been even more inspired by dentists’ giving nature and those that have volunteered to not only give to those in need but have given so much back to the profession. That is the power of organized dentistry.”
As president-elect, Dr. Shepley will have attended dozens of events throughout the year. Sitting next to him at lunch or engaging him in conversation during a break often means you’ll hear him talking about the sugar industry and how bad it is for Americans’ oral and overall health.
“I don’t think anybody can argue that sugar isn’t a problem in this country. It’s addictive,” said Dr. Shepley, who, with his wife, considers himself a pescatarian. “Obesity and diabetes and inflammation and heart disease are all connected to overconsumption and consumption isn’t going down.”
He wants the ADA to take a stronger stance and collaborate with other health organizations — such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Diabetes Association — on how they can combat the issue.
“I think we need to develop policy and collaborate on the harm of sugar,” Dr. Shepley said. “To me, it is an issue like tobacco. We see so many harmful effects of too much sugar in today’s diet. The effects we see in obesity, caries, diabetes and inflammation alone are enough for a call to action. This is an opportunity to collaborate with so many in the health arena. Should the ADA not be a leader in this initiative?”
“It’s a complicated affair, because we still have a lot of members that are not on board with that so we need that cultural shift in getting people to understand that those young dentists in DSOs are dentists just like us and they are our potential members and we need to give them a home just like every dentist,” said Dr. Shepley.
And it’s not just dentists who practice differently from the traditional solo practitioner that Dr. Shepley wants as ADA members. It’s all dentists.
“Obviously that’s the theme of what’s been going on this year at the ADA: Be a home for every modality of practice that there is and every type of diversity that there is. How do we do that? That’s something I struggle with,” Dr. Shepley said.
Integrating diversity is old hat for Dr. Shepley. His patients in Baltimore were from all different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and more. Forty years ago, when Johns Hopkins Medicine was one of the only medical facilities conducting gender reassignment surgery, Dr. Shepley said he was treating many of the patients. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Dr. Shepley said he was one of the only dentists willing to treat HIV/AIDS patients.
“I was used to a lot of that stuff so today, going through all of that diversity and inclusion training, is old hat, in a way. It’s just where I’ve lived for the last 40 years,” Dr. Shepley said.
Gardener, chef, yoga enthusiast
These days, Dr. Shepley is back working as an associate at the practice he sold in July 2021. He has three grown children, Cara, Lauren and Alex, and two grandchildren who live in Japan. They’re currently visiting Dr. Shepley and his wife for two and a half months.
He’s a longtime gardener and enjoys cooking when he’s home. Dr. Shepley has also practiced yoga for a long time, something he thinks has helped his body and posture as a dentist.
“I recently sold my motorcycle, a passion that it is time to give up. I still enjoy bicycling. I have always enjoyed traveling, good movies, eating out and being with friends. I have a soft spot for ethnic foods, good dark chocolate and good cocktails.”
Dentistry may not have been in his sights when he was in the apple orchards but through some persistent tenacity, he slowly climbed the ladder of organized dentistry to the top.
“I can truly appreciate the challenges of owning a practice and being a small businessman,” Dr. Shepley said. “I have worked very hard, but never regret my decisions and am very grateful for the life dentistry has given to me and my family. Maybe I could have done a little better in work/life balance. I appreciate the opportunities I have had to travel and meet great people around the country. Organized dentistry gave me training in leadership and improving my interpersonal skills.”
Dr. Shepley was interviewed by Kelly Ganski, editor for the ADA News, in June.
ADA News: What are the three biggest issues facing the profession right now? What are the three biggest issues facing the Association right now?
Dr. Shepley: The biggest issue I hear from members around the country is the work staff shortage. The other two biggies are the same: declining market share and frustration with dental insurance (correctly called dental benefit plans). The issues facing the ADA are the decreasing market share with younger dentists; increased fragmentation of organized dentistry by other new dental groups and social media sites; and the increase in new practice modalities like dental service organizations, which provide many benefits that the ADA has provided in the past.
ADA News: What are the challenges in recruiting more diverse dentists into leadership tracks within the Association governance structure? What is the ADA doing to engage new dentists, especially women and underrepresented groups?
Dr. Shepley: The ADA is executing an intentional initiative of educating and advocating for more diversity and inclusion. Some of the challenges are this is happening quickly, and change is hard for many. When we look at the current demographics of today in the schools and new dentists coming into the profession, it is very different from the past. Among incoming dental students, 57 percent are women and the majority are nonwhite. Among those graduating from dental school, 30 percent indicate they will be practicing in a DSO. We are seeing a decrease in market share as these new dentists are not the joiners of the past. We must do all we can to serve and enroll them into our profession and association. Our future as an association and profession will depend on how well we do.
ADA News: What has the ADA done to promote diversity and inclusion within the Association and the dental profession? What can dentists do to promote diversity and inclusion within their own practices and communities?
Dr. Shepley: We have and will continue to promote diversity and inclusion within our association. We provide many learning opportunities, programs and webinars. We have created positions on our councils and board for young dentists to participate. We have a Diversity and Inclusion committee and network with other diverse associations to move the needle forward. I have personally always considered this when making appointments to committees. I have attended the national meetings of the National Dental Association and Society of American Indian Dentists and events by the Hispanic Dental Association and Association of Dental Support Organizations. At all of my presentations to state dental societies, I have discussed the need to address our decline in market share and the fact that the profession is changing and present the case that it is imperative that we must be a home for all dentists.
ADA News: There continues to be a staffing shortage at dental offices nationwide. How can dentists best navigate this, and what can the ADA do to help?
Dr. Shepley: ADA does have a website with resources to help dentists to manage their teams at ADA.org/DentalStaff. This is the biggest problem and complaint, along with dental insurance issues, that I have heard while traveling around the country. Every state has had either legislation or some initiative to help address this pressing problem. We need a repository of those initiatives and solutions to share among our constituents. Economic research tells us that this country is short millions of workers to fill available jobs, and the problem will not disappear anytime soon. Dentists will need to learn to really be excellent employers and empower their teams to keep them engaged. There are many leaving other health care jobs — and that may be a source of future employees, those who were unhappy somewhere else — but want to stay in health care.
ADA News: How can the ADA work effectively with ever-expanding DSOs in a way that is advantageous for patients and dentists?
Dr. Shepley: It is critical that we learn to work with DSOs. They are here to stay and will become a larger employer of dentists. We are the association for all dentists. It is important to remember that we all treat patients, and it is our obligation to treat all with integrity and respect. It is our professional obligation to follow the ADA Code of Ethics at all times. Some areas where we can work effectively are in advocacy and dental insurance reform.
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. Shepley: This is one of the major issues we are facing. Members are experiencing increasing declines in benefits and difficulty in submitting claims. They feel helpless. They have concerns with the possibility of a dental benefit in Medicare and how that will make reimbursements continue to decline, even though most do care about those not receiving care who are truly in need. The ADA needs to continue to tell our story of all we do to try to help where we can. I would like to see the ADA bring many stakeholders and innovative, creative minds together to try to develop new and even disruptive but improved methods to create a win-win system to help those in need and support the profession.
ADA News: The ADA recently experienced a cybersecurity incident. How did the Association continue to service members during this time? What did leaders learn about digital security that will help the ADA moving forward?
Dr. Shepley: Unfortunately, the incident brings home the notion it is not if, but when. The ADA did a great feat in showing resilience and moving forward during the incident. This comes on the heels of how the COVID-19 pandemic also disrupted operations. This will help the ADA learn how to work more efficiently and nimbly. We are seeing how we are moving forward with new business models. We have learned that digital technology is an important and ongoing cost of doing business in the future. We have also learned how important having the correct insurance coverage is to function.
ADA News: What is your insight on the status of the student debt issue?
Dr. Shepley: I am concerned that as the cost of education increases we may see a decline in those applying to dental school because the time to return on investment is getting longer. I hope this will bring about new ways of funding dental education. We need to work with all involved to improve the situation.
ADA News: The future of the Association is its membership, and recruiting new dentists is a high priority. What programs are working? What would you like to see the ADA do?
Dr. Shepley: We need to work with the dental schools to get the all of the deans and faculty on board with the ADA and organized dentistry. With Executive Director Raymond Cohlmia, D.D.S. as a former dean at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry, I know this will happen. Our new app will certainly be a key factor in introducing and engaging dental students and all dentists. We need to embrace all dentists, no matter what gender, ethnicity, race, and all models of practice including private practice, dental service organizations, public health, military, research, academia and federal service. We need to help all see how we are so important to the profession.
ADA News: Have you learned something about the ADA since joining leadership that you didn’t know previously that you wish every member knew?
Dr. Shepley: I wish everyone knew all the things we do that support the profession and how important our advocacy really is. I wish that all dentists knew the complexity and vast array of activity the ADA is involved with. I wish all dentists knew the commitment and skill of the talented staff. I wish all dentists knew how organized dentistry made this such an outstanding profession and that it is up to them to keep it that way.
ADA News: What should members know about the work of the ADA Science & Research Institute? How does the institute support the ADA’s goal of advancing the health of the public and the success of the profession?
Dr. Shepley: They need to know that the ADA has combined the science area of the ADA with the ADA Foundation science component and together they are a much more effective and powerful research unit. There has been a revitalization that is very promising for future dental research with a commitment to being a leader in the field. ADASRI will help improve clinical relevance as a recognized leader to improve practice outcomes and improve overall health. We are working in so many areas: biosensors; creating biofilms in the lab for studies; biomaterials; doing independent evaluation of products; our ADA Seal of Acceptance program; exploring standards for milling and printing; aggregating research; and giving clinical recommendations. ADASRI does these countless things, and most are unaware of the significance of this work. ADASRI will continue to drive innovation and advance the profession.
ADA News: Should the ADA better recognize/serve public health service dentists and/or dentists who accept or want to accept Medicaid patients?
Dr. Shepley: The ADA should not only recognize and serve public health and other dentists who accept or want to accept Medicaid patients, but the ADA should and will recognize and serve all dentists, whoever and however they choose to practice. Our new app will address all disciplines: solo, small group, large group, DSO, public health, Indian Health Service, research, academic, military, veteran, civil service, association and any other modality of practice. We will provide resources and information for all.
ADA News: Why is advocacy so important to the profession? What do you see as important in this arena? Top priorities? Top accomplishments?
Dr. Shepley: Advocacy is maybe the most important aspect of our association. Only a united voice can really make changes and advocate for the benefit of all dentists and the oral health of the public. We need that large majority of dental voices speaking out in unison to make the difference. Obviously, our advocacy was instrumental in helping to get dentists back to work during the COVID-19 shutdown. We established that dentistry is essential and how important it is to always treat patients and keep dental emergencies out of the emergency rooms. We guided dentists through the complicated process of getting financial resources. We got dentistry moved up in position to get personal protective equipment and vaccinations. Yet, despite all of this, we lost members. One of our top priorities is to pass legislation on Capitol Hill — and in all states — to establish and/or expand comprehensive adult Medicaid dental benefits to eligible beneficiaries and pay dentists appropriately. We are continuing to advocate to help in the area of student debt and need to help address that issue with the help of all stakeholders. We must continue to help dentists navigate insurance benefits and be leaders in creating new ways of managing taking care of all in a way that really works for all.
ADA News: The ADA’s 2021 Dentist Health and Well-Being Survey found 16% of dentists had experienced anxiety — more than three times the percentage reported in 2003 — and 13% had experienced depression. What is the ADA doing to support the mental health of dentists? How can the Association help to battle the stigma associated with seeking support?
Dr. Shepley: We need to let all know that it is OK to not be OK and must remove any stigma of seeking mental health well-being. We need to provide resources for those in need. By sharing stories of those that have benefited by seeking help, we can go a long way in setting the path for others. I don’t think there are any of us that have not been touched by this issue personally or someone in our family. According to a study published in the August issue of JADA, dental health care workers reported higher rates of anxiety and depression during peaks of COVID-19 transmission among the public. The ADA has many resources and networks with the National Alliance of Mental Illness and state dental socieities have well-being directories to help dentists deal with wellness and health, depression, stress, burnout and mental wellness. This is a big issue, and the ADA is continuing to work to provide the resources to help all.
ADA News: The ADA Health Policy Institute conducts studies on the economy, dental benefits, education, workforce and more to inform members and the public about dental trends and statistics. Why is it important for this type of research to come out of the ADA?
Dr. Shepley: It is very important for the ADA to be aware of the data and trends that show where our future is headed. As we find our way into the future, we need to know where we are going more than where we have been. The dental landscape is changing so quickly that constant analysis is imperative. ADA HPI has been showing us these trends for some time, and we are experiencing how these trends are our reality. We need to be able to be agile and nimble to be relevant and to be the ADA that all dentists need and want.
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? What advice do you wish someone had given to you when you started out? How do you compare yourself as you are now with the person you were when you graduated dental school?
Dr. Shepley: Dentistry provides so many opportunities. There is always the opportunity to be your own boss and the ability to practice the way one wants to practice. There are more choices than ever. Those who want ownership can have that and those that want a life to practice without management headaches have more opportunities than ever. Of course, there are opportunities in public health, research, academia, military and other options. I have enjoyed the leadership opportunities and being able to grow in different areas, being able to meet great colleagues all around the country. Of course, there is always the joy of helping others stay healthy and making a difference every day. My advice to others is to take advantage of all that our profession offers. Don’t wait; take all the continuing education you can in the areas that interest you and be willing to go out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to do what you want and remember that others are always willing to help you. Seek out mentors. I did not have the ambition when I graduated to be so involved in organized dentistry and had no idea how rewarding it would be.
ADA News: What do you see as the most important technological advances happening in dentistry? How can dentists embrace these new technologies? How are the technologies affecting the way dentistry is practiced?
Dr. Shepley: The world of digital technology is transforming dentistry. Digital scanning, new imaging, and the integration of these new technologies will help to provide more efficient and predictable care for our patients.
ADA News: What does the ADA do best? What’s your favorite Association service, product or benefit?
Dr. Shepley: We do so many things well. Our advocacy has been outstanding. So has our recent effort in insurance reform. We do things most dentists never really consider, like standards, coding, testing, science, legislative and regulatory advocacy along with so many other things. One of the best products that kept me a member in my early years was our outstanding insurance programs, life, disability, and office overhead.
Today, I see so many leadership opportunities, so many more than when I got out of school.
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? 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. Shepley: The pandemic demonstrated that the ADA has the legislative, advocacy and science to make a difference. The ADA was able to get dentists personal protective equipment and lobbied to be moved up higher on the list of priority professionals to be allocated PPE and receive vaccines from the federal government. We were able to get the resources to dentists to help facilitate applying for the financial aid available. I personally found these resources to be extremely valuable to me and my practice. I am not sure we can ever be totally prepared for any health crisis, but we need to be vigilant about keeping on the forefront of science. It brought to light the need to study aerosols.
ADA News: Why should dentists attend SmileCon 2022 Houston? Why is it important for dentists to connect with their colleagues, and what role should the ADA play in helping to build these dental communities?
Dr. Shepley: Dentists should attend SmileCon to celebrate their association and sense of community. They can learn about what is happening to their profession and be empowered by the collective camaraderie. There will be fun, excitement, great CE and the opportunity to experience a new place. Houston is a diverse and exciting city with culture, great food and NASA. I have found that everyone getting back out to in-person meetings are joyful for the opportunity again. This will be a different than they have attended in the past.
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, low-income individuals, etc.?
Dr. Shepley: Dentistry will play a key role in broadening health equity to meet the needs of diverse populations, helping everyone achieve their optimal level of oral health. ADA supports several bills in Congress that address health equity to help improve health outcomes. The ADA passed a resolution in October 2021 at the House of Delegates on oral health equity. Some initiatives that have come out of that are the formation of HEAT, the Health Equity Action Team, which comprises members from the Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention and Council on Government Affairs, that will launch a robust action plan to include disease prevention and education; supporting cultural competency and diversity in dental treatment; continued research and data; helping dentists drive health equity forward in their communities; and fostering collaborations with the medical community to reinforce oral health within overall health and well-being. The ADA is supporting a bill in Congress to mandate comprehensive adult Medicaid in all states. There are other groups in the ADA constantly looking to improve Medicaid for our patients and member providers.
ADA News: Why are you a member of the Association? Why should a nonmember join?
Dr. Shepley: I originally joined for the continuing education and great insurance plans from the ADA. I stayed because as a solo general dentist, I craved the networking and collegiality. As time went on, I saw the challenge of being uncomfortable as a leader, I grew as a person and my success in practice was enhanced. There are so many reasons that all dentists should join. It really is sort of the price of admission to the profession. The ADA does things no one does: in the areas of testing, setting standards, managing codes, all the work that the ADA Science & Research Institute does, not to mention the work we do in the area of advocacy, regulation and dental insurance. We have many tangible benefits and will continue to improve our products and services. I am excited to have all that we do packaged into our soon-to-come app.
ADA News: Do you have priorities for your year as president? Specific goals you are aiming to achieve?
Dr. Shepley: With a new executive director, Raymond Cohlmia, D.D.S., who is bringing fresh and innovative ideas, I am on board with moving forward with both a business and cultural shift to help build a brighter future for the profession and association. There is a lot of work to be done in facilitating the business and structural shift at the ADA and in embracing our future members. Dentistry has been great to me, and I want to do my share to give back, improve the oral health of others (overall health and well-being), and make sure young dentists can enjoy a fulfilling career. I am interested in promoting dentistry as being essential in overall health. I have a particular issue with sugar, the sugar industry and the harmful effects of sugar. I want to see an increase in market share in the next couple of years and have the ADA be a home for all dentists.