Leaders in Dental Education: Dr. Jack Dillenberg, Inaugural Dean of Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health

Thasin Jaigirdar
Published on Apr 20, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

Dr. Jack Dillenberg is the inaugural dean of Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health. He received his Bachelors from Tulane University, his Dental degree from New York University, and his Masters in Public Health from Harvard University. He has previously served as associate director for public health programs inthe California Department of Health Services and provides health services consulting. Dr. Dillenberg is recognized on a national level as an expert in the area of public health leadership, health program development, and oral health issues. You can learn more about Dr. Dillenberg from his blog, http://jackdillenberg.com/.

What is your background and how did you get interested in dentistry?

I grew up in Queens, NY and had gone to college in the south at Tulane. It’s interesting that I chose a career in dentistry because at the time I wanted to be a lawyer. As it turned out during my time in college, in the selective services draft my lottery number was #7, so I knew I was going to be drafted. However, I had opposed the Vietnam War. I also happened to realize that attending dental school would allow one to defer from the draft. I had gotten into law school, but I also took the Dental School exam and got accepted to dental school. What was ironic was that during my time at NYU’s Dental School, I had decided to volunteer for the Navy. I was in the Navy Reserve during dental school and served as a Navy Dentist after that.

The reason I actually chose Dentistry over Medicine was because I didn’t want to deal with life and death. As a human being, if I made a mistake, killing a tooth is different than killing a human. I thought dentistry was a better pathway for me as a result. I happened to realize that dentistry provided me a lot of flexibility. It proved to be a wonderful thing because I have been able to do some exciting things which I never thought I would be able to do in my career.

When I was in dental school, I was a hippie, and a bunch of my friends and I set up a free dental clinic by the hippie scene, on St. Mark’s Place in New York where there was a clear need at the time. I also got involved in student government and really started to see my leadership capabilities emerge. I was class president for four years and the student present of NYU during my senior year of dental school. It seemed like an important time to go to Dental School as I was influenced by the civil rights movement, the peace movement, etc. All of those things around me influenced me and my thinking with regards to what I wanted to do professionally.

How did you become involved in dental education?

It’s been quite a journey. I have never aspired to be a dental educator or a dean of a dental school. When I finished my dental school, I went into the Navy. Afterwards I responded to an ad to work with disabled individuals in rural Connecticut. That experience changed my life and made me sensitive to these individuals who are some of the most underserved people in our healthcare system because they cannot express their pain and discomfort well.

I started to develop a sense of purpose to serve underserved populations. After working in Connecticut, I went to Jamaica and worked in a very rural  clinic and then finally went to Harvard for my MPH. Then, a couple of things happened. I was in an academic institution and was offered an opportunity to become a public health consultant at the World Bank. I met these officials from the World Bank when I was in Jamaica and they enjoyed watching me succeed in running a clinic for Jamaicans. I was a white kid from Queens who was enjoying things and just loved by the people. When I was at a Public Health Association Meeting one day, I stopped by at the World Bank to meet these officials again and they offered me a consultancy position in Calcutta, India. It was an urban development project with a health component. The World Bank doesn’t hire dentists, so this was a great opportunity for me. I went to Calcutta, and worked with the government of West Bengal. I developed an outreach program to train 2000 honorary health workers, training them to work in their communities to provide basic education and hygiene information to 2.2m slum dwellers in Calcutta. I spent 6 years going back at forth between Boston and India during the time because I was simultaneously offered a position at the Harvard Dental School for their pre-doctoral public health program with the new department chairman. I was a full-time faculty at the school, teaching Dental Public Health as well as a Public Health Consultant for the World Bank. It was a great time and gave me a tremendous breath of experience.

I had no idea that I wanted to get involved in academia down the road. I enjoyed teaching in the classroom and the interaction with the students. I liked dealing with bright young men and women, serving as a role model of sorts to get them to understand public and population health. I began to realize then that a good clinician or dentist cannot solely care  about teeth. It’s about the person attached to the tooth, the family attached to the person, and the community attached to the family. The provider has to be provided with all of that, and not just the tooth. I wanted students to be a leader in their communities and know what it means to actually be a great clinician.

Eventually I left Harvard to to move to Arizona where I served as the State Dental Director in the Arizona Department of Health Services. Eventually I moved up the ranks to become the Director of the Health Department, serving in the Governor’s Cabinet. Subsequently, I moved to Los Angeles becoming an Area Public Health Officer before relocating back to Arizona to start the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health of A.T. Still University.

I see that you are currently working with a Senior Dental Leaders Program. Could you give a little bit of insight behind the work you are currently doing there?
The program is a collaborative effort between Kings College in London and Harvard University. It is a strategic leadership program for improving children’s oral health. We also help leaders understand workforce challenges of the future through disruptive innovations and scenario thinking as tools as we lay out possible futures and alternative options ahead of us to gain insight into the theory and practice of strategic leadership, team development, collaborative working, innovation, and change management. It provides participant time for self-reflection for current and future roles of dental leaders. Through this we also try to develop dental leaders of the future.

I specifically got interested in this because of my time in Jamaica. For 2.5 years, I was a dentist for over 200,000 people. It was a great adventure for a younger individual. I was living on the beach and would take my motorcycle down to the rural clinic to provide care. It was an extraordinary thing for me and I learned a lot about the third world, poverty, and the need for oral health in developing countries. It took me on a global pathway for the appreciation for oral health outside of the US and how important is in influencing individual’s lives. It led me to attend Harvard to get my Masters in Public Health because I had begun to realize that I wanted to steer the boat instead of just rowing the boat.

What do you believe is the toughest challenge we currently face in dental education? What are suggestions you have in dealing with those problems?

I think part of the challenge is that many folks have a preconceived idea that dentists should be dealing with only the mouth as if the mouth is separate from the body. Society also propagates this notion by keeping health and dental insurance separate. Honestly, there should be just one health insurance because the same blood to the tooth goes to the rest of the body. One of the challenges is having young men and women going into dentistry understand that it is all connected. The mouth is part of the body and we need to be concerned with the whole person.

Dentists need to understand other issues a patient in the chair must be facing. If a women is sitting in the dental chair and she has a bruise on her cheek and all we add are the cosmetics for a good smile without even asking about the bruise, we may have possibly just produced a better victim for domestic violence instead of engaging in helping fix the health of the patient. The more inclusive of the integration we have with oral health to total health, the better our patients are. Oral health is an important component of primary care!

Given the opportunity I had to start a dental school, I was able to build things around the philosophies I believed in and wanted to instill in students. We created a dental school focused on community service and whole person care. We select students who want to make a difference in the world and teach them to be great dentists while also being great leaders. By doing so, I hope changes in the profession in delivery of oral healthcare will occur.

What is the best part of being a dean of dental school?

To me, the best part is being around the students. Being able to be an effective role model to inspire, motivate, and nurture young men and women. I firmly believe that faculty members are an important element to this. Faculty need to nurture students and not beat them down to be great dentists. In the past, dental education has been harsh. We need to change that because I believe if we start with a student that wants to make a difference and combine them with a faculty member to grow and encourage that, then we have a situation that really improves health in this country.

I see me as a band leader of a world class orchestra. I want to pick great musicians as my faculty that can play their instruments. I want to pick some of the songs, and I want to inspire them to play the concert of their lives.

Do you have any final thoughts you want to share?

I think with dentistry, integrity is important. I tell my students that the most difficult glue to find is one that can repair a broken trust. Don’t lie and be honest, both with yourself and your patients.

Also, you must be courageous, not foolish courage though. I tell my students, for a turtle to go forward it has to stick out its neck.

If you combine courage, integrity, and heart together then you can really show generosity and forgiveness. By building core leadership skills, developing compassion and encouraging passion in an individual you finally can build a great dentist and ultimately an excellent healthcare system..