For those interested in raising awareness on issues important to the dental profession, planting the seeds for advocacy begins early - and there's no better time to start than during dental school.
"It is so important that we are present and speak out on issues that affect the future of the dental profession," said Justina Anigbo, president of the American Student Dental Association and a third-year dental student at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. "We are and should continue to be the voice that lawmakers turn to when creating policies that affect dental health care."
Elizabeth Tramontana, a fourth-year dental student at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, agreed.
"I always encourage students to get involved in advocacy and organized dentistry," said Ms. Tramontana, a student trustee for the New Jersey Dental Association. "The only way we can ensure a future we can be happy about is to get involved no win building that future we want for ourselves and our patients."
Ms. Anigbo and Ms. Tramontana were both among the 400 dentists and dental students who gathered in Washington March 20-22 for the ADA's and American Student Dental Association's signature advocacy event known as Lobby Day .
During the three days, dental students and dentists from 44 states as well as the Virgin Islands and DC, met with lawmakers to discuss issues important to dentistry. This included two dental insurance reform bills, the Dental and Optometric Care Access Act and the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act; two student loan reform bills, the Resident Education Deferred Interest Act or REDI Act, and the Student Loan Refinancing Act; and the Medicaid Dental Benefit Act.
For Ty Smith, a second-year student at the University of Alabama School of Dentistry, this wasn't just his first time at Lobby Day, it was his first time advocating for anything. He urged his fellow students to jump in and get their feet wet.
"My only prior experience with politicians is what I had seen in Netflix's 'House of Cards' so I was hoping the staff member wouldn't be as unpleasant as the politicians in the show. Turns out, they are normal people just like the rest of us," said Mr. Smith, who is a member of his school's Legislative Liaison Committee. "But in all seriousness, it was such an amazing experience. Yes, it is a little nerve-wracking at first, but, after you meet a few people, it really is such a welcoming environment. It also really makes you feel good about the profession you are entering. There are so many hard-working people pushing for our profession, dentists and non-dentists alike. You realize that you are part of a special group of people that can impact the lives of so many."
One of the highlights from Mr. Smith's Lobby Day experience was meeting with the staff of his hometown member of Congress, Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., who would go on to cosponsor the REDI Act. Mr. Smith said he was particularly focused on REDI Act since he is hoping to pursue endodontics after graduating from dental school. The REDI Act would allow dental students to defer interest accrual on their federal loans while they are in residency programs.
"It is so amazing to know that what I helped with actually had a direct effect on Rep. Rutherford," he said. "It just goes to show that these members of Congress value our stories and you can actually make a difference by advocating. In addition, I just wanted to give the team of people attending Lobby Day that represented Florida a special thank you. They made me feel so welcome."
In all, 17 legislators signed on as cosponsors to legislation that both ADA and ASDA advocated for during Lobby Day.
For all the students interviewed for this story, this was their first time experiencing Lobby Day in person.
"It was so nice to be able to travel to D.C. and gather in-person with fellow dental students from all over the country," Ms. Tramontana said. "I was a little disappointed that the meetings with the hill staffers for my state were all virtual, but I really enjoyed the rest of the in-person events offered that weekend. I actually was able to bring two students with me to Lobby Day this year, which was great!! I hope more students, and new young dentists get involved in organized dentistry/advocacy."
"Being that this was my very first Lobby Day, I was genuinely so impressed," Ms. Anigbo said. "From the extensive training sessions to the meetings on Capitol Hill, the weekend was nothing short of a spectacular example of the leaders of our profession showing up and doing the work. By lobbying year after year, we continue to make sure that our voices are heard and that the wellbeing of our patients and the future of our profession are a top priority when decisions are being made. As I watched students and dentists network and lobby together, I was filled with such an immense feeling of pride for both of these amazing associations. I look forward to coming back next year and being a part of this experience again."
For more information about Lobby Day, visit ADA.org/LobbyDay .