Spring 2014

Way to Go

Strategic plan focuses on clinical excellence, collaboration, communication and civic engagement

By Helene Ragovin

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Leslie Darnell, D14, discusses a clinical case as part of a new curriculum initiative that involves students from all four dental classes. Photo: Kelvin Ma

The School of Dental Medicine’s enduring mission is to train practitioners with the highest level of clinical excellence, says Dean Huw F. Thomas. Guided by a strategic plan approved earlier this year, the school will do that in 21st-century fashion, educating a new generation of dentists who will also have critical thinking and communications skills, a deep understanding of professionalism and the collaborative mindset needed in an increasingly interprofessional health-care landscape.

“The strategic plan gives us the pathway to develop as contemporary a curriculum as possible,” says Thomas. At the same time, he adds, “this is a living, breathing document. We fully understand that things are changing, both in dental education and in the profession. The plan gives us the flexibility to adapt to significant changes that we see coming.”

Known as 2020 Vision!, the plan lays out the school’s strategic priorities in four areas: curriculum, research, people and civic engagement. Some strategic goals include:

• A curriculum that incorporates new educational technology, hands-on training in practice management and an emphasis on patient-centered communication and cultural competency.
• More opportunities for students and faculty to engage in interdisciplinary research.
• Additional channels for faculty and staff to communicate directly with the administration.
• Increased numbers of alumni who serve as volunteer faculty and are involved in civic engagement via school initiatives.

The school plan, says Thomas, aligns with the university-wide strategic plan, Tufts: The Next 10 Years (T10), which the Board of Trustees approved in November“We see our plan as fitting very nicely underneath the umbrella” of T10, he says.

The dental school’s strategic plan was developed through an inclusive and wide-ranging process led by the Strategic Plan Steering Committee, which Roya Zandparsa, clinical professor of prosthodontics and operative dentistry, chaired. The steering committee solicited input from the entire Tufts dental community—students, faculty and staff at One Kneeland, as well as alumni around the world and leaders in the profession. By the time the project was completed, some 500 people had contributed in some fashion.

The work then fell to the Strategic Planning Oversight Committee, which advised the dean on implementation, and four working groups that developed objectives and metrics for assessing progress. The executive faculty committee approved the document in January.

A New Type of Learning

Work on curriculum revisions took place in tandem with preparations for the school’s upcoming reaccreditation, in 2015, by the Council on Dental Accreditation (CODA). The updated curriculum, dubbed the “2020 Tufts Oral Health Curriculum,” will go into effect this fall for the class of 2018, though there has been some partial implementation this year, and some pilot programs are under way, says Nadeem Karimbux, associate dean for academic affairs.

The vision for the new curriculum is to combine traditional methodology (lectures followed by testing) with approaches that integrate science, technology, patient needs and lifelong learning. “How do we try to introduce more formative learning, which is feedback-driven and not tied solely to a high-stakes kind of assessment, such as written, graded exams?” asks Karimbux.

Students should be given opportunities for “developmental activities” to cultivate professionalism and social and communication skills, he says. “That allows for self-assessment by the students and critical thinking,” he says. “And those are also things that we’re being asked to show in our accreditation, so everything ties together.” The CODA standards stress the importance of students assuming responsibility for their own learning and being able to analyze and apply their knowledge in various contexts throughout their careers.

For example, a pilot program started this year has teams of predoctoral students from all four classes working together on presentations about patient treatment plans based on real cases from the school clinics. The team approach not only prepares students to work with fellow dentists, but accustoms them to collaborative work. A concept known as interprofessional education—the idea of a “health home” in which patients receive their care from various providers working together—is increasingly taking hold in U.S. health care.

Another pilot program allows students and faculty to interact via laptops, smartphones or tablets during lectures. For instance, a professor can show an image of the oral cavity and ask students to point to a specific structure on their devices. The instructor will know immediately whether most students understand the material by viewing all the responses on his or her monitor. “One of the issues that we face is that students of this generation don’t want to be sitting in a lecture,” Karimbux says. “This is a way to get them to interact and to keep up with the relevant information.”

Other curriculum initiatives outlined in the strategic plan include expanding the use of computer-based testing to incorporate videos and complex images in exams and to provide faster feedback for students; revising the practice-management curriculum, including a pilot program in which students spend time in alumni practices; introducing new content on evidence-based dentistry and creating a course on communication skills with patients, Karimbux says.

“It’s important for institutions to identify areas of strength and focus, to identify critical mass areas of research and look for opportunities to develop them.” —Dean Huw Thomas

The strategic plan also calls for creating additional opportunities for students and faculty to conduct research, particularly in interdisciplinary projects. This would entail more formal training in research skills in both the pre- and postdoctoral programs as well as efforts to foster translational research, in which “bench-science” discoveries benefit patients more quickly—a theme that is reflected in the university strategic plan.

“This is an opportunity to look across the Tufts campuses for collaborative research ideas,” Thomas says. “It’s important for institutions to identify areas of strength and focus, to identify critical mass areas of research and look for opportunities to develop them.”

The civic-engagement section of the plan seeks to increase research in public health. Because millions of Americans do not have access to regular oral health care, Tufts is also committed to strengthening its community service, service-learning and outreach programs.

The “people” portion of the document looks at the recruitment, development, support and retention of students, faculty and staff as well as heightening the engagement of dental alumni. Like the university’s T10 strategic plan, the dental school plan seeks to achieve greater diversity among its student body, faculty and staff and to ensure that the school promotes a culture that is welcoming to all.

The school will also focus on professional development for faculty, including the creation of a task force on women in dentistry. Nationally, women comprise nearly 50 percent of entering dental school classes, according to the American Dental Education Association. “This huge cohort of women coming into the profession is a really good thing,” Thomas says. “The landscape is changing so quickly that we need to be able to understand what this means and to develop specific mentoring opportunities for women.”

Maria Papageorge, D82, DG86, DG89, A12P, professor and chair of oral and maxillofacial surgery, who chairs the task force, says the group will have a much better sense of the job ahead when it analyzes the results of a survey sent to faculty, students and staff in February. She suspects much of the feedback won’t necessarily be specific to Tufts or even to dentistry. “The challenges for women are similar everywhere,” she says.

The way to address the gender issues, Papageorge says, is to get the conversation going. She hopes to do that through a new lecture series, slated to begin in May, and by creating more opportunities for faculty to mentor both female and male students.

The school’s strategic plan will continue to evolve, Thomas says. Each of the four working groups will present progress reports at meetings of the executive faculty committee. To read the full 2020 Vision! plan, go to tufts.edu/dental/2020vision.

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