Impending crisis prompts national salon on dental education

Group of opinion leaders meet to discuss short- and long-term strategies for reforming the nation's dental schools.

Sep 22nd, 2004

Citing widening gaps in oral health disparities, increasing dental student indebtedness, declining state and federal investments in health professional education, out-dated curricula, and a host of other issues, a group of opinion leaders in dentistry and related health professions gathered in San Francisco in late August to map short- and long-term strategies for reforming the nation's dental schools.

Modeled after the 18th Century French Salons, the gathering featured small discussion groups focused on critical issues and the development of strategic action plans.

Organized by Santa Fe Group, a non-profit, oral health policy organization, and sponsored by a number of key dental supply manufacturers, distributors, and related industries, participants quickly reached consensus on the need for reform.

Drs. Dominick DePaola, President of Boston's Forsyth Institute, and Harold Slavkin, Dean of the University of Southern California, School of Dentistry, presented a white paper which documented the scope of the crisis and explored avenues for reform.

Central to their thesis is the fact that medical and dental training have drifted apart, leaving physicians with virtually no understanding of oral health problems and dentists with poor knowledge of the many relationships between oral health and overall systemic health.

Institutional traditions and politics, coupled with educational rigidity, compound the problem, creating and sustaining barriers which ultimately prevent patients from receiving comprehensive care.

Within dental education itself, multiple challenges confront the profession, not the least of which is a critical shortage of dental faculty and severe funding constraints. Many at the conference argued that dental curricula have not kept pace with scientific advancements, social realities and oral health care needs, learning styles of students, or technological advances in the design and delivery of professional training.

As they articulated strategies which might effectively improve health professions education, participants examined community-based educational models, the relative lack of diversity in dental school enrollments, medical-dental training models, corporate engagement in professional education, and advances in educational technologies.

Expansion of the public health sector and the creation of new types of oral health care providers, similar to nurse practitioners or physician's assistants, were also discussed.

Approximately 200 short and long-term strategic measures were identified as a result of the two-day salon, and Santa Fe Group will be consolidating and disseminating these recommendations and other conference materials over the coming months.

The DePaola and Slavkin paper, "The Necessity for Reform in Dental Education," is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Dental Education in November. Additional information can be found at or by contacting the organization by phone (505-603-0804) or email (

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