Everyone Matters: Seeking leadership diversity in organized dentistry

It has been a long but fulfilling 10 years of hard work in organized dentistry – or “dental-land,” as I like to affectionally call it.

Dr. Patel

I often talk about losing my community of colleagues and friends once dental school graduation happened, and how my work in the associations has brought me a new community. They are the support system I didn’t realize I needed, the mentors who have worked through countless personal and professional situations with me, and the friends who still stand by me, no matter what.

I am lucky.

My most favorite person, the one who I have always looked up to first (and the most), also happens to be my boss, my father. Through his eyes, with his wisdom, we have treated generations of patients in our hometown, Westchester County. It has, and continues to be, the best journey I have ever taken.

But what of the students, residents, and new dentists, who are our successors? I decided long ago that I was going to work hard to pay these blessings forward however I could. For me, its been my work with the new graduates, the members of the dental education community, and those trying to find their way, that has been the most rewarding.

Women, ethnic minorities, and new dentists (the American Dental Association defines new dentists as anyone who graduated less than 10 years ago from dental school), are flooding into the workforce in ever increasing numbers.

The American Student Dental Association, our counterparts in the dental education system, is full of driven, motivated, bright individuals, who lead their organization with conviction and fairness, and truly represent a diverse and inclusive body, reflective of its members.

What about us? The ADA and its tripartite – the state dental associations, and our local component dental societies, are made up of volunteer dentists who move through the ranks of leadership in various pathways to councils and committees. As the landscape of dentistry changes, are we, too, striving to be diverse and inclusive? Some would say yes.

The ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership teaches valuable leadership skills to a small group each year, culminating in a project that puts these skills to use. I am part of this year’s class. Collaborating with the others in my group, learning and growing, and hearing their insights, have been amongst the most invaluable takeaways for me. It also opened my eyes to the incredible discrimination that we, as younger members of our profession face.

Our House of Delegates is the voting body of our association and is 483 members strong. New dentists make up about 30% of active ADA membership but only occupy 5% of the delegate positions nationally. Yes, some states strive to work at filling the pipeline to leadership with a diverse range of doctors. Many of the most qualified amongst us are former ASDA leaders. However, there is a marked drop-off of former ASDA leaders staying involved in organized dentistry in similar capacities to what they were in dental school.

Why is this?

I can speak from my experience. I have been told I was too young. I have been told I was too inexperienced. I have also been told that new dentists will never be allowed in positions of leadership simply based on age.

For some, this may have put up an unsurmountable barrier. For me, it fueled my desire to fight back against these conscious (and unconscious) biases by working hard and providing real results in the work of the association.

To that end, the New York State Dental Association, my home state organization, passed a resolution in 2019 marking out a new dentist position on every state council. This is in alignment with the council system at the ADA. It was a hard-fought victory, and even on the floor of our House of Delegates, the same concerns were brought up.

After hours of emotionally draining testimony, a colleague of mine stood at the “pro” mic and simply said the following, which brought it home for all of us. Her words were “We are all dentists, aren’t we? We have the same degree. We are all humans.” As she stepped of the floor, there was a stunned silence in her wake. Her words rang true.

There is still much work to be done, together.  The statistics support this. Our leadership is not reflective of the changing landscape of dentistry, and if we are to secure the future of our profession, this must change. Change is hard, and change takes time. But I believe in us. And I believe that we can do better. Because, everyone matters.

Dr. Amrita R. Patel grew up in Chappaqua, New York, and graduated from the New York University College of Dentistry in 2011 before completing a general practice residency at the Nassau University Medical Center. Dr. Patel is a general dentist in private practice with her father, Dr. Rohit Z. Patel, in Westchester County, New York. She chaired the New York State Dental Association New Dentist Committee, is the International College of Dentists – USA Section Fellow Ambassador of Social Media, and currently serves the new dentists on the American Dental Association Council on Dental Benefit Plans for the 2020-21 term. She is also among the recipients of the 2021 ADA 10 Under 10 Awards.