In the year’s leading up to Dr. Terry Dickinson joining the VDA, everything in his life was just right. He built a successful Houston-based practice, was heavily involved in organized dentistry on the state and national levels, he regularly gave of himself philanthropically and had a strong community of friends and peers whom he and his wife saw frequently. He was on track, living a happy, comfortable life.
And yet, he struggled with the question of a higher purpose and desire to make a broader impact. Was he willing to set the fear of failure aside for something unknown and the possibility to create something bigger? And how does one go about finding or creating those opportunities?
In July of 1999, during those first days as the VDA’s executive director, Dr. Dickinson recalls the faces of association staff looking to him to understand their role and asking himself that same question: what now? He began by making calls, attending conferences and collecting resources. He spoke with Joe Martin, the ADA’s Director of Membership, and other state executive directors, building both an understanding for what the role could be, but also lifelong friends and an expert network – something the VDA staff relies on daily.
Three months into his new role, the VDA was approached by the Health Wagon’s Sister Bernie about bringing out-of-state dentists into Wise County to provide care for area coal field workers. Logically speaking, the idea made sense. But from a regulatory perspective, it didn’t align with the Virginia Board’s requirement that dental services be provided by a Virginia-licensed practitioner. Right then, Dr. Dickinson committed the VDA to providing dentists for the event, expecting to be able to provide somewhere between 30 and 40 dentists.
Dr. Dickinson remembers that first event in Wise County clearly – watching attendees wait for hours and thinking back to his days in practice and how this patient population was not represented in his – or peers’ across the country – practice. It was a tangible realization of healthcare inequity and while he recognized that what they were doing there that day in July of 2000, was a short-term patch, the VDA needed to be part of that longer-term solution. And so began the journey of MOM.
Organizationally speaking, Dr. Dickinson’s goals for the VDA have been to drive membership value and create an environment of growth for the talented individuals serving association members. Predecessor Bill Zepp brought the VDA into the 1990’s with process, policy and procedure, but by the end of his term, the association was looking for a visionary to help the VDA identify how to prepare itself for technological and generational shifts. Dr. Dickinson describes those early years as stepping up onto the balcony, watching the dancers below and figuring out how get people to pay attention to the big issues facing the industry.
And while that continues to be a struggle for most associations, Dr. Dickinson credits his success here to the staff – whose growth as employees but also as people is propelling the organization forward – and the efforts of association leadership to better support members’ needs. The changes in the last five years alone to better manage member expectations, work collaboratively with components and communicate with members on their terms has made a 10-fold impact on the membership value proposition.
In 2002, Dr. Dickinson wrote an article challenging dentists to conceive of what it would be like to practice without the support of organized dentistry. He spoke to the need for the association to be nimble, stay ahead of dentists’ needs and demonstrate a willingness to accept the sometimes-chaotic process of change. It parallels his own journey for purpose upon coming to the VDA and the path he continues to chart in leaving the association later this year. Over the coming years, Dr. Dickinson plans to maintain his role as MOM Trail Boss and is exploring how best to holistically support dentists in his next career.
So as members look to carry on his legacy, Dr. Dickinson encourages each of us to be a participant – don’t just spectate – you gotta get in the game. Involve yourself in advocacy, help new members in your area, mentor a new dentist and simply pay it forward.