UW News

May 21, 2009

Dentistry trio to give last lecture to benefit new School of Dentistry teaching endowment

School Of Dentistry


Three UW-trained dentists hope to conclude their quarter-century-old lecture partnership on June 12 by giving their alma mater something to smile about.

Drs. Vincent G. Kokich, David P. Mathews and Frank M. Spear will deliver their final joint presentation at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall to raise funds for a new pedagogical endowment at the School of Dentistry. The three seek to raise $250,000 and attract matching funds for a new professorship that will further elevate the quality of the school’s teaching.

“All of us wanted to leave something behind, with our names attached to it, just because of this wonderful relationship we’ve developed over the years, and our names are associated with one another,” says Kokich, a Tacoma orthodontist.

The endowment would support a new part-time teaching position, bringing an expert in faculty development and training to the dental school to lead workshops and provide one-on-one consultation with faculty. The new professor could also offer courses to graduate students who want to teach, or even to dental pre-doctoral students who may be looking ahead to training their own staff or delivering presentations to dental societies.

“We’ve learned from one another,” Kokich says of himself and his lecture partners. “We’ve seen what doesn’t work in teaching, and have been able to use that to teach people. We realized we never learned that in dental school. I never had the opportunity as a faculty member, if I wanted to improve my teaching skills, to be guided by people who do this for a living.”

Says Spear, 55, a Seattle prosthodontist: “Historically, dentistry has been taught by a model that’s not the most nurturing or open-minded — not UW, but dental schools generally have a reputation of being dogmatic. It’s necessary to some extent, because you have to get people through.

“My vision is to take the instructors at the school and have them become more effective at nurturing and teaching.”

Mathews, 64, who practices periodontics in Tacoma, also sees a further benefit for academic dentistry, which faces a growing problem of attracting new blood: “We feel that if a student is touched by a great teacher here, he may decide that he wants to do that.”

For the last 25 years, the three dentists have earned a worldwide reputation as lecturers in interdisciplinary dentistry. Their joint presentations around the globe have drawn thousands of listeners to learn more about this relatively new approach to collaborative dental practice.

The concept originated in 1984 with Dr. Ralph O’Connor, a Tacoma dentist who organized a team of nine area dentists into the Northwest Network for Dental Excellence. At that time, dental specialties were usually performed in linear fashion: A patient who needed more than one kind of treatment would simply go from one dentist to the next.

O’Connor organized his group on a different model: having all the specialists consult one another before treatment began, and devising flexible treatment options. The goal was to have specialists improve rather than impede one another’s work.

Kokich explains: “There is a way for those disciplines to interact in a productive manner, where they understand one another’s needs and can help one another. The patient benefits, but everyone also learns in the process. If I’m on that team, I’m going to learn a little bit more about endodontics or periodontics or restorative dentistry, just because I’m playing a part in the discussion.”

Kokich, Mathews and Spear have lectured separately, but have made a major impact with their joint presentations, prominent dentists say.

“They’ve been great for dentistry,” says Dr. Don Joondeph of Bellevue, a former president of the American Association of Orthodontists. “They’ve gone a long way to improve patient care by stressing how important it is for dentists and specialists to interact together in the care and treatment of patients. Treatment gets more sophisticated, and they keep their information very current. Their presentations are supported by evidence — not just anecdotal case reports.”

“They were amazing,” says Dr. Jonathan Sandler, conference chairman for the British Orthodontic Society, which hosted the trio in London in 2004. “We drew the biggest audience the BOS has ever seen at a spring meeting. … The three of them entertained and wowed the British audience. A number of my European friends also flew into London just for the meeting.”

Says O’Connor: “They have trust in what the other person is doing, so they can disagree with each other in front of the audience, and yet not feel like they’re criticizing or demeaning. They’re letting the audience see the process of how it works.”

Aside from their professional collaboration, the three dentists are good friends who enjoy kidding around with one another.

Mathews recalls an appearance last year in Bilbao, Spain: “I introduced us, and I spoke in Spanish, and everyone’s laughing. I got back [to my seat], and I told them I’d said you guys are dumb [unprintables].”

He pauses for a second and flashes a wicked grin. “I didn’t really, but…”

“I think our most fun is the night before the lecture,” says Spear. “We’re usually in a hotel room, having dinner with each other. We sit around, put the lecture together, and it’s the creative process, getting the juices flowing — let’s do it this way or that way.

“Being together, just the three of us, whether we’re in Zurich or Tokyo or Barcelona, it’s just a fun time.”

Spear says: “One of the greatest gifts that Vince and Dave and I have had is that we’re all very competent, but our egos have never gotten in the way of each other, and we’re all very lucky that way. We all graduated No. 1 in our class from dental school. Every one of us had something to offer that the other two don’t.”

The June 12 presentation at Benaroya will be the team’s swan song because Kokich has decided to leave the grind of the lecture circuit. (“I’m somewhere else every Friday,” he says.) Mathews and Spear, however, will continue to lecture.

Meanwhile, they hope to leave a lasting legacy at the School of Dentistry with their endowment. Says Spear: “Let’s teach people how to be more effective teachers and educators. If that happens, it changes the whole nature and character of a school.”