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Advocacy in Action

By Linda G. Levin, D.D.S., Ph.D.

With the recent election of a new government we have all been pondering what it takes to provide good leadership, sound decision making and vision. These attributes are requisite for a good leader and a great leader combines them with compassion, empathy and wisdom to advocate for their constituency. Our national challenge was to pick those leaders who would best advocate for our country on every level. It’s really no different in any group and certainly not in the AAE. Your AAE leadership takes its responsibilities seriously and with a membership as diverse as ours it can be a challenge to make sure that we are always pursuing your needs and desires. We try to do this in several ways but our membership surveys are central in getting a finger on the pulse of endodontists in every realm. In the 2016 membership survey you told us that advocacy is a top priority. We take this feedback seriously and always want to make sure that we understand exactly what our members are saying and then address it head on.

“Advocacy” is a general term that can have a broad or narrow definition. Wikipedia defines it as “an activity by an individual or group which aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.”[1] Often organizations interpret advocacy as those efforts directed to the established political system such as our federal government. We certainly do this at the AAE by tracking any national or state legislation that may impact members or our patients. We also work in concert with ADPAC to make sure that endodontists are part of the voice of dentistry in Washington. We encourage members to support ADPAC in its efforts to elect dentistry-friendly leaders. We also encourage members to step up and participate in ADA’s Legislative Action Center and contact your elected leaders.

There is however, another definition of advocacy that pertains more to how we champion our specialty to the public and to our other professional colleagues. I believe that this is where our membership feels that we need to work harder. At our most recent interim board meeting and strategic planning session this was a major topic of discussion. Many of us feel that the measured approach we have previously exhibited is no longer useful and that we owe it to our patients and our specialty to advocate for the endodontic specialist in a factual, bold and relentless manner. I feel we need to strengthen and sharpen our public awareness campaign and ally with other specialty groups to spread the message that as specialists we are the experts in endodontic care. A targeted strategy will be imperative if we are to covey this important message.

Anytime a discussion is held regarding our public outreach initiatives it seems that the discussion immediately goes to the failure of the last public awareness campaign to meet our goals. In retrospect, our timing and target audience may have been wrong. Even the most brilliant marketing campaign can sometimes not affect the desired results if all variables are not well-aligned. The “Got Milk?” campaign is a great example of a fabulously popular campaign that did not achieve the end goal – getting more people to drink milk. It did prove that you can invest a lot of money in an awareness campaign and it can be extremely popular but ineffectual. Our challenge now is to fashion a fresh awareness campaign that will reach our target audience in an effective way and “move the needle” in favor of referral to endodontic specialists. The timing is right; we have social media and unlimited portals to spread our message. We also have a patient population who self-advocates by gathering their own information regarding their health care providers. With the recruitment of an Assistant Executive Director for Marketing and Communications, we should be poised to spread our message and do it in an effective manner. We cannot simply throw up our hands and do nothing because our prior attempts have fallen short of our expectations. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (unless you are talking about sky diving).”

Our alliance with other specialty organizations is crucial for advocating for dental specialty care because it offers us strength in numbers and a unified message. The Dental Specialties Group is comprised of the nine ADA-recognized specialties and it has met as a group twice a year for more than a decade. During my experience with the DSG it has served largely as a discussion forum rather than an action body. This needs to change. Mutual challenges should galvanize our specialties and motivate this group to be more assertive and active. This has never been more important than now when other specialty recognition boards are forming and challenging the traditional system of specialty recognition. This group is also the best positioned to take a message to the public that specialty care in dentistry has a unique value and place in dental health care delivery. We always have a representative and staff from the AAE at those meetings. We have been strongly rallying for action in this body and need to continue to do so. On December 4, the ADA will convene a Task Force on Specialty Recognition and we will have representation at that meeting. We will also be present at a summit on specialty recognition to be held in February by the ADA that will include a larger group of stakeholders, including representatives of the ABE. The AAE will continue to rally for action – and not just words -in each of these arenas.

There are also areas of “quiet advocacy” in which the AAE regularly participates. I use this term because many of our actions from the central office are never seen by the membership as a whole but they strongly advocate for the specialty of endodontics and our patients. We were recently alerted to a company that provides traveling specialists for general dentist practices. Their website declared that its endodontists perform root canals without microscopes! The company removed this language after receiving a request from the AAE to remove any language that was not consistent with the standard of practice for endodontics.

Another part of quiet advocacy is the ongoing relationship-building with stakeholders. In addition to our ongoing interactions with the DSG, our volunteer leaders have regular dialogue with dental directors of large insurers, and every other year, your officers meet with this group to discuss the concerns of our members. This dialogue is crucial and informative for all parties and is the best way to address reimbursement issues.

There are also things you can do to better advocate for our specialty. With only a little over one-fifth of our membership being Board-certified, we need to have everyone pursuing that goal. Then, and only then, we can advocate, like the plastic surgeons, to see a Board-certified endodontist. Any licensed dentist can perform endodontic treatment but only those who complete an ADA-accredited endodontic residency can become Board-certified. This is a unique credential that only we can attain. Until we have a majority of endodontists who are Board-certified we cannot use this as a public awareness tool or as a tool to distinguish us from the generalist. You can also become active with your local affiliate and state organizations. It’s always harder to direct change from the outside. It is more effective to become involved, then educate your colleagues on the unique qualifications of the endodontic specialist. By becoming active you can help to safeguard the future of oral health care and the dental profession, while also building a network of colleagues who can come to value the specialty care you provide.

The national elections are over and we are waiting to see how our political future will unfold. While I cannot predict the direction of the Trump administration I can predict with surety that your officers, Board of Directors and staff will continue to strengthen and sharpen our efforts for advocacy for specialty endodontic care on all levels. We must all do our part and together we can enhance advocacy for our specialty and most importantly for our patients.