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“Innovate or Die”: The New Face of the ADA

By Jill Sirko, PhD

An Interview with Forsyth dentech 2023 Keynote Speaker, Dr. Raymond Cohlmia

The Executive Director of the American Dental Association (ADA), Dr. Raymond Cohlmia, has a message for professionals in the oral health field: “The ADA is changing. It is not the ADA of the past.” As the largest and oldest dental organization, the ADA has been around for over 164 years. However, Dr. Cohlmia is not looking back. He is looking to the future.

“People say the ADA was this. It was that,” he said. “It may have been that way in the past. But the American Dental Association is changing. We can’t change the past. However, we can change the future. And what you’re seeing now is a different face of your American Dental Association.”

What is the new face of the ADA? “We are inventing ourselves for tomorrow,” Dr. Cohlmia said.

With a commitment to research and innovation, Dr. Cohlmia will take the stage in October as a keynote speaker at Forsyth dentech 2023, the leading oral health innovation and investment summit. This is the first year a representative from the ADA will speak at Forsyth dentech. After his address, Dr. Cohlmia will also join a panel discussion with industry leaders and dental school deans on the topic of “Innovative Clinical Care.” Forsyth is excited Dr. Cohlmia will be joining the conversation.

From Dentist to Leader

Dr. Cohlmia’s long career in dentistry, experience in education as a faculty member and later dean at the University of Oklahoma, and decades of service at the ADA made him a natural choice for the position of executive director. He comes from a family of dentists and began getting involved in leadership early in his career. He explained, “I started working in leadership because my father was very involved with the Association and very involved with leading the profession. It was important to him to make people’s lives better.”

This desire to improve the lives of others is also a significant factor in Dr. Cohlmia’s own career choices. “It is very important to me,” he said, “to give back to the community and make people’s lives better. In my practice, I was so blessed because I was able to change so many people’s lives. When I became dean, I taught 60 people a year. I taught them how to change more people’s lives. So, I was having an even bigger impact,” he said.

“When I was considering this position at the ADA, I thought, ‘Okay, this is an opportunity to expand my impact.’ I believe we can all come together to make a difference, 159,000 dentists who also believe in the value of changing and improving the lives of the people we serve. I want the ADA to go to the next level, to provide more care to the people we serve each and every day.”

A Business Philosophy to Drive Change

One of the ways that Dr. Cohlmia is working to change lives is by positioning the American Dental Association to take a more proactive role in the future of oral healthcare. Since becoming executive director in November 2021, he has been committed to progress and innovation.

Dr. Cohlmia believes it is vital for the sustainability of the ADA and the profession to be ready for the future and to be able to adapt to change. He explained his philosophy for business through a set of five core values that he says informs everything they do at the ADA.

“The first value is customer focus,” he said. “The second value is global presence. That means that when it comes to oral health care, people turn to you as an authority in this field. The third value is sustainability. And it’s not just the idea of sustainability in the sense of holding on. Sustainability means improving, expanding, and defining a new business growth plan that helps you continue to thrive well into the future.”

“The fourth value, which is critically important, is innovation. Bob Iger, author of one of my favorite influential book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” said “innovate or die.” Innovation is what drives the future. The last value is nimbleness. This value is one with which most companies, organizations, and businesses struggle. Nimbleness means being able to quickly move and to act.”

Innovation as Responsibility

As he underscored the importance of looking forward, Dr. Cohlmia talked about the role his family played in his training. “I had an incredible uncle, who was a successful grocery owner. He told me, ‘You are either expanding or you’re going out of business. There’s no other choice. If you hold the status quo while the rest of the world is moving forward, you’re going to fall behind.’

Dr. Cohlmia is determined that the ADA will help pave the way for the future of the profession. In building a sustainable future for the ADA, and the field of dentistry, he became excited about the collaborative efforts happening at Forsyth dentech to drive oral health innovation forward.

“Dentech is critical because it brings together all the groups that drive innovation. It brings together people who say, ‘Tomorrow has to be a brighter day than today.’ We have to drive tomorrow to be better than today. Yes, I say ‘have to.’ It’s an imperative. That’s the whole purpose of innovation. Innovation leads us into the future. It drives us forward.”

“The ADA’s values are built on evidence-based dentistry, providing information on standards and policies, creating reference points that dentists, practitioners, and patients receive to standardize care. That’s a critical aspect of what we do.”

But,” he continues, “innovation drives where we’re going. That’s what I’m excited about. I am excited to come to this conference and say, ‘The American Dental Association is going to work hand-in-hand with leaders in oral health to drive change.’ What are we trying to do?” he asks. “Make people healthy. It’s as simple as that. That’s why innovation is so critical.”

Making People Healthy

Making people healthy, however, is anything but simple, when looking at the logistics of getting oral health care to marginalized and remote communities. Dental reimbursements are far from sorted out, insurance does not cover many types of complex treatments, and many people in the US are unable to access preventative care.

The ADA executive director is well aware of all that stands in the way of making people healthy.  “Roughly half the population visits the dentist in the year—about 165 million patients. But what about the other 165 million?” he asked. He sees those people without access as the responsibility of the profession, and innovation as an important tool for addressing barriers to public health.

One innovation he is particularly excited about is artificial intelligence, or AI. “AI, I believe, will be instrumental to help us to provide more care to more people than we’ve ever seen before, which is our responsibility as professionals. Using AI and other technologies and tools can help bridge the gap for people in remote areas and others experiencing barriers to access to care.”

However, he also recognizes that dentists and dental teams have concerns that innovation can address too. “You have to balance this. We have to talk about revenue. We have to talk about delivery models. We have to talk about logistics. Everything comes into play. You can’t just say we’re going to improve people’s lives without looking at every one of these aspects and addressing every one of these key aspects with innovation.”

Forsyth dentech provides the opportunity for applying innovation to all these key aspects.

“When I’ve studied the past conferences,” said Dr. Cohlmia, “I see that this is very much what Forsyth dentech is all about. I am excited to be a part of this. When Dr. Shi first heard me present, he said, “Wow, this guy’s taking the ADA to a different level.” Well, everyone coming to Forsyth dentech is taking the oral health field to the next level. We are all driving toward a common goal, a better future. That’s why I so look forward to this conference.”

Building New Partnerships

Dr. Cohlmia is also looking forward to joining the conference to discuss how the ADA can be more involved in building a robust oral health ecosystem that breaks down the silos preventing meaningful change. As the day of the conference draws nearer, he wants people to recognize the new face of the ADA. “We want people to understand where we’re going,” he said. “We want them to say, ‘Wow, the ADA is working towards the research. I need to be a part of this. Let’s reach out and have a conversation.’”

“The new ADA is being driven by evidence-based dentistry, research, science, innovation, and taking care of patients. We make people healthy. It’s a new day for the American Dental Association, and a new day for all of us to create the future of dentistry together. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve.”

Forsyth dentech has grown substantially in scope since its inaugural conference in 2021, and every year brings additional leaders in the oral health innovation ecosystem to the table, to discuss how to accelerate oral health discovery and implement new technology to improve public health. We are excited to have the Dr. Cohlmia join as a keynote speaker and to add the voice of the ADA to the conversation. Learn more and register.

Forsyth thanks Dr. Cohlmia for his generosity in speaking with us for this interview. Interview edited for length and clarity.

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