More than 50 technicians, dentists, educators, manufacturers and association representatives gathered at the Lab Summit's annual meeting in Chicago in February. Founded in 2005 by Dr. Bill Yancey and Dr. Gordon Christensen, and currently led by Executive Director Dr. Burney Croll, the group meets annually to brainstorm about the challenges faced by our community, including an aging technician population, dwindling technology programs, reduced laboratory coursework in dental schools and increased offshore competition.
Although present since the beginning, the ADA's involvement in the Summit has grown in the past few years, culminating in the ADA's Future of Dental Technology Conference in 2009. Following the conference, the ADA's Council on Dental Practice formed a subcommittee on Dental Laboratory Technology and, last fall, proposed ADA policy that was subsequently passed by the ADA's House of Delegates. Some of the key provisions in the resolutions included encouraging schools to use local--and not offshore--laboratories and to offer joint courses for dental and laboratory students, as well as asking dental societies to include technicians in continuing education opportunities.
For more insight into these resolutions and other issues being addressed by the Lab Summit, LMT talked to Dr. Bill D'Aiuto, who is chair of the ADA's Subcommittee on Dental Laboratory Technology and the new dentist representative on the NBC's Board of Trustees.
LMT: What do you hope to see as a result of the resolutions the ADA passed last Fall to encourage dentist-technician interaction?
Dr. D'Aiuto: The resolutions emphasize dentist-laboratory communication. This is an issue that speaks to me; I've been through Pankey and Dawson training and although I'm not a prosthodontist, I do some fairly large cases. I need my local lab, and there are many, many dentists like me.*
In particular, the resolution that encourages dental schools to work with local labs is intended to mentor dental students so that once they're in their practices, getting truly and effectively connected with a local lab could be more important to them than possibly getting a lower price by sending work overseas.
Keep in mind, though, that the ADA isn't a ruling body and can't mandate anything to dental schools. Something we can do, however, is work with dental schools to see the results of some of their policies over the years. We're currently conducting a survey of dental school deans to find out where they do their laboratory work and whether or not they interact with nearby dental technology schools.
For example, we know that many dental schools send their laboratory work outside the country so we want to talk to some who use local or in-house laboratories and find out how the technician-dentist interaction enhances the experience of the graduating dental students.
LMT: Speaking of education, you voiced great concern at the Lab Summit meeting about the dwindling technology programs, especially in light of the news that the dental technology program at Idaho State University is closing this spring.
Dr. D'Aiuto: If the Idaho program closes, it would bring the number down to just 19 dental technology programs nationwide. We had 56 programs just 22 years ago.
One of the concerns discussed at the Lab Summit meeting was the Department of Labor's recent reclassification of the occupational status of dental technicians from "skilled" to "unskilled" labor. With fewer programs in the mix, it makes it more difficult to oppose that reclassification. We have also been told that the occupational classifications won't be reviewed again until 2018; this means we only have six years to reverse this perception. Also, with dental technology growing more sophisticated, having future technicians trained on the job is simply not a sufficient answer.
So what should we do? We need to support the laboratory programs. The ADA has also conducted a survey of dental technology schools and we'll be looking at the ones with healthy enrollments and talking about how they continue to attract students and look for ways other programs can learn from them.
I'm also proposing that the Subcommittee on Dental Laboratory Technology studies the training of technicians in other countries, where some technicians graduate with certificates or degrees from extended multi-year programs.
LMT: Attracting newcomers to the laboratory industry has been a problem for years, which is why many of these educational programs failed. How can we tackle that challenge?
Dr. D'Aiuto: In the late 1980s, dental schools were seeing a similar issue: not only declining enrollment, but also a decline in the quality of applicants. In order to spur communication between dental schools and the dental community at large, the ADA initiated Project Select, an outreach program that focused on efforts to recruit students and get people to consider careers in dentistry.
Project Select was powerful because it unified the dental industry and motivated everyone to get involved. It had its own logo, printed brochures, and even had dentists talking to patients about careers in dentistry. It took off in many states, especially in Florida where I proposed we adapt the model to implement recruitment efforts in both dental and auxiliary programs; within five years we changed the course of dental education in the state.
That model can work in dental technology, too, by helping laboratory owners see the value of regularly getting into high schools, having open houses to show off their CAD/CAM technologies, maybe having brochures illustrating all of the cool things happening in today's dental laboratory.
LMT: Many of the attendees at the Dental Laboratory Summit expressed how validating it was to see so many ADA representatives at this year's meeting. In your view, why is it so crucial for the ADA to be part of this process and what's next?
Dr. D'Aiuto: Simply put, a strong laboratory industry is vital to the success of dentistry. We appreciate the hard questions that get examined at these meetings, because that's how we can understand what's on the plates of the decision makers in the laboratory community. And being involved also allows us to act as a conduit to our members so that dentistry as a whole understands the problems the laboratory community is facing.
The ADA can't solve all of the problems facing the laboratory profession, but we would like to help and be a part of the solutions. We look forward to our continued dialogue.
* The average laboratory client base consists of 78% local dentists, according to LMT's 2010 State of the Industry survey.
- NADL Fights Federal 'Unskilled' Classification of Dental Technicians, February 2011
- ADA Passes Key Resolutions to Encourage Dentist-Technician Collaboration, November/December 2010
- State of Education Key Concern at Future of Dental Technology Conference, September 2009