Kathleen O’Loughlin

Tufts trustee Kathleen O’Loughlin, D81, has been leading her peers for decades. The first female class president at the School of Dental Medicine, past president of the Tufts Dental Alumni Association, former chair of the trustee Committee for University Advancement and current executive director and COO of the American Dental Association, O’Loughlin, the new chair of the board of advisors to the School of Dental Medicine, sat down with Tufts Dental Medicine to share her thoughts.

How has dentistry changed for women since you started out?

When I told my dad, a dentist, that I wanted to go to dental school, he said, “I always hoped you’d marry a dentist, not be one.” I think he was aware that women were moving into the workforce, but he knew the path would be difficult for me. Today, leadership opportunities for women continue to grow, and women dentists are thriving.

What are the biggest challenges facing dental education and the field? 

The cost of higher ed is a huge issue that we’ll have to solve in the near term. If we don’t, we’re going to be faced with elitism in the health professions that will be detrimental to public health.

The second big issue is how to achieve the triple aim of a better patient outcome and a better patient experience at a lower cost, at a time when demand for dentistry is down and the cost of doing business using the traditional practice model is up.

And the biggest opportunities?

There’s tremendous optimism for the future of the field, especially for young practitioners. There’s a call to action to collaborate with medical colleagues. Over the next five to 10 years, I see dentists playing a much more important role in the primary-care system. Dentists also have the opportunity to form group practices that enable them to purchase expensive technology, offer patients a comprehensive set of services and convenient hours and cover for each other during vacations and pregnancy—remember, half of dental school classes are women. A dentist can have a great work-life balance.

What makes a strong board of advisors?

Our board is composed of practicing dentists, faculty and nondentists with expertise in related fields. Having such a strong source of real-world expertise is critical to providing the dean with sound recommendations. The board’s diversity of opinion is a strength we need to continue to focus on, not just in terms of gender or ethnicity, but also career path, age and diversity of thinking. The board was very impactful in terms of developing the school’s strategic plan, and the variety of voices was essential to the quality of the end product.

What are your goals for the board of advisors and for the school? 

First, it’s incredibly important now that we help raise money for the school to invest in infrastructure, research and scholarships. We can’t keep putting costs on the backs of students who are the future of the profession. Second, I want to focus on creating lifelong learners who understand that when they get out, they’re really just beginning to learn. Dental students are taught to work in teams, but when they get out into practice, those opportunities are rare. We need to get alumni to help young dentists maintain that spirit of collaboration and not go into the isolated solo-practice model that has been the norm. People recognize Tufts as one of the premiere dental schools, and alumni should be proud we’re continuing to shine by molding the future of the profession.

Written by Kathy Hubbard. This story first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Magazine of Tufts University Dental Alumni Association. Read the full issue online here.