Leaders in Dental Education - Dr. Steven Friedrichsen, Dean of College of Dental Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences

Thasin Jaigirdar
Published on May 11, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

Dr. Steven Friedrichsen is the Dean of the College of Dental Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences. He had initially joined the university as Associate Dean of Patient Care and Clinical Curriculum. He graduated from Seattle University with a BS in Biology and recieved his DDS from Northwestern University. He subsequently completed his a residency in University of Chicago.

Before joining Western University, he was a Dean of Creighton University Medical Center School of Dentistry and was Special Assistant to the Univeristy President for Healthcare Strategy. His publications cover a wide variety of topics including Balancing Leadership and Management, Rural Behavioral Dental Health Care, Periodontal-Restorative Interactions, and a Socio-Economic Comparison of Prosthetic Patients in a Two-Tier Delivery System.

What is your background and how did you get interested in dentistry?
I grew up in a very small town and the father of one of my closest friends was a dentist.  I was around him a lot and liked the combination of applied science and use of his hands.  He was a good role model since 5 of the 53 high school graduates went on to dental school.  My dental school training was at Northwestern University School of Dentistry (now closed) and I followed that with a General Practice Residency in the hospitals and clinics of the University of Chicago.

How did you become involved in dental education?
Based on my dental school experience, I was interested in changing dental education to make it a more humanistic experience and incorporating sound pedagogical principles.  Most of my career (the first 25 years) was split between education and private practice dentistry – half-time for each.   I believe that I was a better faculty because I also practiced and a better practitioner because I taught.  During the last ten years I have been lucky enough to serve as dean of two dental schools and be in a position to help enact some of the changes that were my primary motivation in the first place.

What do you believe is the toughest challenge we currently face in dental education? What are suggestions you have in dealing with those problems?
There are certainly many challenges and they all are important.  For this interview, I would say there are many conversations about the cost of, and the return on, investment for an education.  As dentists, we need to look up out of the mouth once in a while and realize that this conversation is going on in many fields and broadly throughout higher education – we aren’t alone in this concern.  The cost of an education is a complex topic – there are multiple drivers; quality demands, technology, faculty and staff compensation, etc.  Each one is valid and all are going up, but the real answers lie in some fundamental changes in the education process.

Some solutions can be garnered by using technology to reduce the cost of every school developing and individually delivering each and every component of the curriculum.   Similarly, there are technologies that will allow us to increasingly use simulation and virtual training to both standardize and reduce the clinical training costs for dentistry.  The leaders of dental education need to recognize that the time is upon us to establish some momentum for needed changes in the educational process.

What advice would you give current undergraduates interested in a career in dentistry?
Beyond the obvious and typical advice of a solid academic preparation in the required courses, I would encourage you to obtain a wide range of experiences and a well-rounded education.   Both will help provide you with points of connection with your patients.  Dentistry is a very personal healthcare – unlike many other providers, you will invade a patient’s personal space virtually every time you work on them.  Establishing rapport and communication is an essential element to the trust that is needed.  I find that looking for things you have in common is a great starting point for that relationship.  The broader your experiences and education, the more likely you are to find those initial intersection points.

What does a typical day look like as Dean of a Dental School?
The dean’s position could be likened to that of a conductor of an orchestra.  There are many talented players and keeping them all on the same page of the music, on tempo and in tune takes lots of communication.  Unlike the orchestra, however, they are rarely in the same room at the same time.  As a result, it takes lots of meetings, e-mails and calls to communicate.  For me, it is also very rewarding because the College of Dental Medicine at WesternU is writing new music.  We have an innovative, integrated curriculum that leverages technology for both patient care and for teaching.  We also have a strong core of humanism and a very dynamic faculty, staff and students.  The position certainly has lots of variety, but for me, that is part of the appeal.

Do you have any final thoughts you want to share about either your career or just dentistry?
One of the tasks I enjoy most is talking with potential applicants.   A  consistent message throughout my career is that dentistry is a challenging, but rewarding profession.  It takes hard work and overcoming challenges to gain admission, complete dental school and practice dentistry.  But the rewards make it worth the effort.  The tears of joy from a smile restored, the look on a patient’s face when relieved of pain, the hand drawn picture from a young patient; each of those are rewards that make it all worth it.