O’Loughlin’s Retirement Marks Changes at the ADA

Michael W. Davis, DDS


Dr. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin has announced her upcoming retirement at the end of 2021, after 12 years of service as executive director of the ADA. The ADA is now actively seeking candidates for this position. Interested candidates can find a detailed review of the executive director’s duties and responsibilities and apply for the job online.

Undoubtedly, the ADA will face many challenges in the future, many of which cannot possibly be determined at this time. All the while, communication and problem-solving must be delivered simultaneously on myriad areas vital to organized dentistry. The next executive director, whoever it is, will have his or her hands full.

We spoke with ADA past presidents Joseph P. Crowley, DDS, 2017-2018, and Chad P. Gehani, DDS, 2019-2020, as well as O’Loughlin herself to gain some insights into the responsibilities of leadership.

Candidates Should Display…

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­When asked about the qualities and background one would like to see in the new executive director, Crowley said that people-management abilities are critical.

“The ADA is a big organization that must not be segmented (siloed) as work is completed. This requires people-management skill,” said Crowley, adding that a strong understanding of finance and budget is imperative.

“The ADA should consider someone with a strong background in fee-for-service dentistry. The vast majority of our members provide a vital service to Americans and are pillars of their communities,” Gehani said.

“We should have an executive director who is proud of our role in society and understands that most dentists are charitable people, but that no one should be forced to give away their services at below market value,” Gehani continued.

Diversity is another factor.

“I would like an executive director who is comfortable surrounded by not only sociological diversity, but intellectual diversity. We need someone who surrounds themselves with honorable people who have different viewpoints so that internal debate and discussion are used to promote the best possible outcomes,” Gehani said.

“So much of leadership is about anticipating what lies ahead. The ADA constantly scans for what is happening in the scientific, clinical, academic, economic, and technological environments in order to guide our work for the profession and public health,” O’Loughlin said.  

“We’re living in dynamic times for dentistry, and the ADA’s work is affected by a confluence of these factors. I think an important quality for leading the ADA is the ability to look holistically at ADA’s role in the big picture, think strategically about next steps, and foster a culture that enables the staff and dedicated volunteer leaders to be agile and collaborative as they steer the organization towards its mission,” O’Loughlin said.

New Programs

We also asked these leaders in organized dentistry about what beneficial programs and agendas the new executive director might pursue.

Crowley laid out several areas of valuable direction. He emphasized that the new executive director should “stay close to (government) regulators so dentistry keeps a front-row seat.” He also said that the ADA should go “into the trenches to reach dentists, to show the value of the organization.” He placed a critical focus on how the ADA should “be a vocal participant in the conversation on education debt issues.”

Gehani generated an encompassing perspective.

“Remember, any executive director is bound to pursue only programs which are approved by the ADA elected membership. That said, membership is perennially important, because a robust market share ensures that the ADA continues to be the voice of dentistry. We must find creative ways to help new dentists as they transition into their most productive years,” Gehani said.

“We must always protect fee-for-service dentists and the sanctity of the doctor/patient relationship,” Gehani added.

“While I can’t predict or prescribe what the specific priorities should be down the line, I can say that the landscape of 21st century healthcare is changing rapidly—science, technology, scope of practice, dental benefit programs, diversity of the workforce,” O’Loughlin said. “All of these areas and others will continue to shape what the ADA’s work will look like in the future.”

Immediate Concerns

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Finally, we asked these dental leaders about the most impactful and immediate issues facing the ADA.

Crowley brought up the importance of an “effective search for non-dues revenues.” He furthermore said that the ADA should stress its “continued high presence in science as being what contributes most to our being a profession.”

In addition, the next executive director must be a very vocal leader “at all levels to (promote) the very needed extension of oral health care to all,” Crowley said. 

“The ADA must face the inequity issue full force and demand our profession become an influencer to this issue,” Crowley said. “It is a professional requirement.”

Gehani cited three major themes for the new executive director to pursue.

“Advocating on behalf of dentistry, protecting dentists from third-party intrusion, and creating a bright future for dentistry in the generations to come,” Gehani said. 

O’Loughlin holds strong positions as well.

“Leading dentistry through the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a top priority for us. There is light at the end of the tunnel as national vaccine distribution begins, and we are implementing a strategy to help build vaccine confidence. We also continue to guide the profession through the pandemic on various fronts, through advocacy, resources, and guidance,” she said.

“Our other immediate priorities center on our strategic plan, Common Ground 2025. Even amid the pandemic, we accelerated on key goals in year one. For 2021, our areas of focus include digital transformation, the ADA Science and Research Institute, dental insurance, legislative advocacy, and other important objectives,” O’Loughlin said.

“There is also a critical need for inclusion and diversity within dentistry at the profession level, the leadership level, and the patient level. The ADA’s future depends on recruiting and retaining dentists from all walks of life and leading them in a way that enables an inclusive approach to what dentistry offers,” she continued.

“It is critically important that the profession meets its societal promise of enhancing oral health for all, not just those who can pay for it. We have an opportunity to finally make some progress on health equity, and we need to capitalize on it,” O’Loughlin said.


None of these ADA leaders are identical cookie-cutter clones. Each presents varied and sometimes opposing perspectives.

How far should equity issues be taken before they compromise quality outcomes and discourage the most qualified candidates?

With a limited budget, what programs should receive priority in order of magnitude? Is challenging third-party intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship more important than advancing basic dental science? Is facing the issue of exorbitant student loan debt a priority over advocating legislative matters?

Many agendas will require action, and they will be presented simultaneously. Yet not all of them will enjoy equal priority. Funding may limit some worthwhile objectives.

The new ADA executive director will face a plethora of dilemmas. Supportive and contrasting views will come from the ADA’s House of Delegates, Board of Trustees, and state and local dental societies.

“You can have anything you want,” the renowned psychologist Susan R. Fussell once said, “but not everything you want.”

Dr. Davis practices general dentistry in Santa Fe, NM. He assists as an expert witness in dental fraud and malpractice legal cases. He currently chairs the Santa Fe District Dental Society Peer-Review Committee and serves as a state dental association member to its house of delegates. He extensively writes and lectures on related matters. He may be reached at mwdavisdds@comcast.net or smilesofsantafe.com.

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