Faculty and Staff, Students

Valachovic to Graduates: ‘Possibilities Before You Are Endless’

Following is the prepared text of the keynote address delivered by Dr. Richard Valachovic at the UNC-ChapelHill School of Dentistry’s 56th Honors Convocation (May 10, 2009).

Valachovic is executive director of the American Dental Education Association. In this role, Valachovic leads the only national association representing the academic dental community, which includes all dental schools nationwide and Canada, along with dental research institutions, allied dental schools and programs, hospital-based dental departments and individuals within these institutions.

Dean Williams, esteemed members of the faculty and administration, representatives of the North Carolina Dental Society, Dental Foundation of North Carolina and the UNC Dental Alumni Association, graduates of the class of 2009 and assembled family and friends:

It is wonderful to be with you in the midst of all of the wonderful charm and spirit of Chapel Hill – but I am especially pleased to be with you at this commencement ceremony at the UNC School of Dentistry.

Today is a major day of transformation of the lives of you graduates. I well remember the exhilaration of my own graduation from dental school 32 years ago to the day today; it truly felt as if everything in my life before that day culminated in that event.

On this one day in your lives, you move from being someone with a lot of knowledge and training . . . to being a member of a profession.

For those of you receiving the doctoral degree in dental surgery or the Ph.D., on this one day, you go from being Mr. or Ms. . . . to being Doctor.

For all of you receiving degrees today, you also become a member of a profession that you have worked long and hard to join.

On this one day, you become something that you will be for the rest of your lives.

Like others before me, I have always found it interesting that this time of year is sometimes called “graduation” and sometimes “commencement,” because the two words are not truly synonyms. “To graduate” refers to the completion of a course of study, the culmination of an often-arduous process. “Graduation” thus marks an end and is pointed . . . backwards. “To commence,” on the other hand, means to start, whether it is a literal or metaphorical journey. “Commence” thus marks a beginning and is pointed . . . forwards. Because this is, in fact, both of these things for you, I want to explore this turning point by first looking backwards and then forwards.

Now behind you are all those hours of biochem and physiology, of dental anatomy and preclinical restorative and prosthetics, of endless hours of clinic and mock boards. For others, it was the challenges of radiology, pharmacology, clinical competencies, dental materials, oral path and infection control. And not only is your time here at UNC behind you, but those years of elementary, middle and secondary school, along with your initial interest in science; perhaps your early experience with your own dentist or orthodontist; your decision to apply to dental school in the first place; the excitement of acceptance and starting out, followed by the crushing realization of the demands it would impose; the late hours with books and instruments; the excitement of finding your own niche; the first hands-on experience with a real, live patient. Those are times you never forget and, in their own way, they have helped to bring you to today’s turning point.

Receiving your degree or certificate today also says something about who you are and what you are capable of doing. You are not being GIVEN a degree; you have EARNED it – and with a considerable amount of effort and discipline. And you have earned something of real value to yourselves, your families and the world in which you live.

On this day as well, it is important to acknowledge that you have not reached this point alone. For the parents, grandparents, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, other family and friends who have believed in you, supported you, probably in many ways sacrificed for you, this ceremony is also a culmination and a celebration. Whether the new dentist in your family is the first or the most recent in a long tradition, you [speaking to family section] deserve to celebrate this turning point, too. On behalf of the dental community, I’d like to join these graduates in thanking all of you for your contributions to making this day possible.

I would like to acknowledge, in addition, the entire faculty, deans and staff here who also share this accomplishment. Not only have you guided the education of this group of new professionals, but also you are THE key players in dental education as a whole. I am thrilled to be experiencing with you such a wonderful time for our field. Because of all the positive trends, you are able to select from a large pool of applicants the best and the brightest to be your students and then to help develop them into talented and skilled practitioners. It is on your shoulders that this awesome responsibility rests, and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for carrying it out so well. I also want to give special acknowledgment to Dean John Williams, for his superb leadership of this school and his dedicated leadership within the dental education community.

So with all that preparation now behind you on this graduation day, we turn next to the “commencement” aspect of your experience. What is ahead of you on what must be called, even if it’s a cliché, this first day of the rest of your lives?

Well, I have the happy privilege of reporting that you are entering an incredibly vibrant and wonderful profession that is absolutely overflowing with opportunities. At no time in the history of dentistry has the future been brighter. In fact, I would venture to say that, at some point in the future, we will all look back and agree that this period was a platinum era in dentistry.

One factor increasing demand for dental services is the widespread interest in and emphasis on health in general. Like healthy eating and exercise, dental care is encouraged for both health and appearance reasons, so the profession benefits from the public’s desire for a sparkling smile to accompany their ripped muscles.

Along with the increased demand for dental care goes a rise in the income level of dental practitioners. Although there are wide variations in individual income depending on practice decisions, the average net income of full-time dentists from 2000 to 2009 saw an increase of over 80 percent. The net salary of dentists now exceeds that of family physicians, general internists and pediatricians, and the average income of a dental hygienist is in the highest 10 percent of incomes of others with similar education.

It is, of course, important to acknowledge that the rewards for dental professionals are not simply financial. Dentistry was found to be the third most trusted profession, earning higher marks than physicians and lawyers, in a recent Gallup Poll. Another recent Gallup Poll found that 87 percent of adult patients were satisfied with services provided by their dentists.

For all of these reasons, the dental profession is extremely healthy and is projected to continue improving in the future. Complementing these trends – and certainly contributing to my assessment of this time as a platinum era – is the massive expansion in procedures and techniques that enable dentists and allied dental professionals to serve their patients better than ever before. These improvements range from implant dentistry to aesthetic dentistry to orthodontic treatments to surgical treatments – and beyond. There’s nothing that annoys me more than to hear some uninformed person say something like, “Well, nobody has any cavities any more, so what do dentists do nowadays?” I say, well, thank goodness we don’t have to worry about caries as much anymore and can concentrate on the real health issues of sustaining oral health and helping people keep their teeth for a lifetime.

So, here you are today entering this highly respected, technologically sophisticated and well-paid profession, and the demand for which is only going to increase in the future. The rewards of the profession are, in a word, tremendous. But to those to whom much has been given, much is also expected – and I want to spend my last few moments with you talking a bit about the responsibilities that membership in the dental profession carries with it. Aside from the obvious dedication to becoming a competent and caring practitioner to your patients and a supportive colleague to your associates, part of being a professional is realizing that your education doesn’t end with this graduation exercise. It is critical for your future as a professional that you make a commitment to lifelong learning.

Equally important to making a commitment to a lifetime of learning is making a commitment to a lifetime of service – what I think of as “doing good in the profession.” For all of the increased demand I outlined earlier, many people in the United States still have limited access to dental services and few options for paying for the treatment they need. Nearly half the population does not have private dental insurance, and coverage of dental treatment is limited under Medicare or Medicaid. Low-income individuals, minorities and those with limited education are particularly at risk for dental problems and have the highest incidence of oral disease; yet members of those groups, who are often living in underserved rural and urban areas, also have the least access to dental care.

A final way of doing good in the dental profession is to serve as role models and mentors. Unfortunately, Hollywood has provided our society with very poor fictional characterizations of dentistry. Indeed, from the incompetent bumbler in Frank Norris’s classic novel “McTeague” to the Nazi torturer played by Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man” (“Is it safe yet?”) to the drill-happy lunatic played by Steve Martin in “Little Shop of Horrors” (“I’m your dentist!”), it seems that every dentist who shows up in a novel, movie or even a television show is either a nitwit or a sadist. And don’t you just cringe when someone says, “It was so difficult … that it was like pulling teeth,” or “It was the most painful thing that I have ever done … worse than a root canal.” Now all of us know better. But meanwhile, all of us real dentists must serve as living role models for everyone from our patients to children to those who may be future dentists. It is part of our responsibility to our profession and to ourselves to do so.

As you receive your degree or certificate today – the amount of time required for that event will be little more than the two minutes required the running of each of the horse races in the Triple Crown series – it can almost seem that the surrounding hoopla of these ceremonies eclipses the moment that really matters: when that degree certifying your entry into the profession is given to you. I earnestly urge you not to let it do so, for I hope that the one-on-one personal delivery of your degree will forever forge in your minds and hearts the distinctly personal nature of the dental professions and the powerful personal responsibility it entails.

Whether you are a permanent or temporary resident of the State of North Carolina, you represent its wonderful history and spirit; and in the platinum era of dentistry you are now entering, the possibilities before you are endless. On this day, this turning point in your lives, I extend to you my heartiest congratulations for how far you’ve come and wish you the greatest of success with how far you’re going to go.

Thank you.