Winter 2016

That Human Touch

Creating a culture of respect emerges as a national priority in dental education

By Emma Johnson

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Professional relationships are being recognized as vital in the clinic and classroom. Photo: Kelvin Ma

Two years ago, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) sent a message to dental schools around the country: don’t forget the human element.

The 2013 revisions to CODA’s standards for predoctoral dental education included new requirements for dental schools to document their commitments to creating and maintaining a “humanistic culture” that ensures “collaboration, mutual respect, cooperation and harmonious relationships between and among administrators, faculty, students, staff and alumni.”

Tufts School of Dental Medicine successfully met the new requirement during its accreditation review this year—and is using the standard as a launch pad for curricular innovation and faculty development designed to promote humanism in the school and in their professional lives.

“Quite simply, humanistic culture means treating everyone with respect and dignity,” says Robert Kasberg, associate dean of admissions and student affairs. “We’re striving for a place where everybody, from dental assistants to secretaries, students, residents, faculty members and administrators—everybody treats each other with respect and dignity.”

In describing the dental school’s commitment to a respectful culture, CODA pointed to the ethics and professionalism curriculum already in place for D.M.D. students as well as an initiative called Respect in the Workplace, established in 2013 by the school and Tufts Human Resources, to refine policies related to employee and faculty interactions. That effort has led to the creation of school staff and faculty advisory councils.

“Quite simply, humanistic culture means treating everyone with respect and dignity.” —Robert Kasberg

While students are taught a formal curriculum of ethical and professional behavior, there is also an informal curriculum, modeled by faculty members, staff and administrators in the way they conduct themselves on a daily basis, says Nadeem Karimbux, associate dean of academic affairs, who led the accreditation process.

“When we think about humanism, you can talk to students about codes of ethics and ideal behaviors, but oftentimes students observe contradictory behaviors that we would not consider humanistic.” he says. This “hidden” curriculum can take many forms, Karimbux says, from a faculty member berating a student, to a staff member making unpleasant comments about a patient.

“It’s easy to have a confused view of how we are supposed to be treating each other and our patients. Being aware of that as a faculty member or an administrator is very important,” he says.

CODA decided to implement the humanistic culture standard in response to a recommendation from the American Dental Education Association’s (ADEA) Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education.

“The primary motivation was the belief that a culture that promotes collaboration, mutual respect, cooperation and harmonious relationships is a better place to learn than one that lacks these values and characteristics,” says Karl Haden, former associate executive director at ADEA and a member of the Commission on Change and Innovation. “A humanistic culture also connects to professional ethics, which is particularly important in the caring professions.”

“Anyone who’s a health-care professional recognizes that there’s a lot of stress and issues to deal with in private practice,” Karimbux says. “How do you, as the leader of a health-care team, create that culture where people with very diverse views, opinions and different expectations can work as a team? I think when students are exposed to different aspects of humanism, they can reflect back on that training to promote that environment once they’re in practice.”

Contact Emma Johnson at

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