Future Thinking: A Conversation with Dean Christian Stohler

Monday, February 6, 2017

Jonathan Lomboy’17: The school is marking its centennial but my classmates and I are looking to the future. What new challenges do you see facing the next generation?

Dean Stohler: You are entering our field at a unique moment. I don’t think any generation of dentists has faced the magnitude of change that our students will confront in the next few decades. You will be impacted tremendously by scientific advances: Continued advances in technology, personalized medicine, and bioinformatics will force all health care disciplines to think in different ways. The boundaries between fields and treatments will change. In the coming years, treatments will focus on genes, and that change will have a huge impact on the way care is delivered.

From a delivery standpoint, the evolving health care system will likely have a large impact on your career. Because it introduces the government as a significant payer for dental care, the government will have a larger influence on reimbursement systems. We can’t fully predict the outcome, but we know that reimbursement is shifting toward value-based models in medicine.

Unfortunately, no one has been thinking about the value of dentistry. We know the value of a procedure. But what value do you place on helping a person keep his or her teeth for life? These are important questions that your generation will have to wrestle with. 


Lomboy: Last fall marked the beginning of your fourth year as dean and my fourth year as a student. Let’s discuss what you have done during that time.

Stohler: One of our priorities has been improving the administration of our curriculum. After an analysis of how other schools at Columbia manage this, we decided that the College of Physicians and Surgeons has the best structure. We have strengthened the curriculum management team and have started to implement changes aligned with the P&S structure. I think that the education our students get through the P&S curriculum is very good—I’ve never seen such a spectacular curriculum—but I felt that the curriculum on the dental side needed updating, which we have begun.

We have to teach you how to practice in a changing health care delivery environment. That’s why we hired Joseph Errante as senior associate dean of clinical affairs.  Joe has made a career of successfully navigating through uncertainty in several health care sectors, including dental group practice, the insurance industry, and consulting. He has quickly helped us improve revenue cycle processes and advanced quality control and infection control initiatives. His skills will be good for the school as we grow our clinical practice, which we must do, but he will also be an invaluable resource to our students.

We also have made a commitment to you regarding tuition, promising that once you know what your base tuition is, we keep increases in the range of cost of living increases. That way you know what your total debt load is going to be. We are committed to that.


Lomboy: I am disappointed that I’ll never get to experience the new fifth floor clinic scheduled to open in summer 2017, but please talk about the plans.

Stohler: The plans for the clinic and simulation facility on VC-5 are very exciting. There will be state-of-the-art equipment and software for our students and faculty, but the greatest advance is how it will impact our ability to conduct research. We will be collecting an enormous amount of data about patient care. We will monitor patient traffic, wait times, how instruments are used, and so forth. That data can be analyzed to support research and, ultimately, clinical decision-making. We will be using data streams to inform our practice and our education models and to improve cost effectiveness without sacrificing quality.


Lomboy: Tell us about your plans to expand the school’s work on global oral health issues, one of your priorities.

Stohler: We have long had programs abroad, but much of the thinking is about how to work globally in a way that makes a lasting impact, not just on our students and not just on individual patients. While traditional service mission trips have been popular, we know from research that a single day of care does not have lasting impact—we need to work collaboratively, build local capacity, and really address the needs specific to the places we visit. We are starting this now with new programs in Kenya, Guatemala, and elsewhere. But on a larger scale, a global engagement task force of the CDM Board of Advisors has been helping us to consider how best to achieve our goals.

I also have appointed a Global Initiatives faculty group to begin working on curriculum changes that will provide an important framework for global education.


Lomboy: Does the school have any plans to move?

Stohler: No. Our location in Vanderbilt Clinic in the heart of the medical center
gives us an inter-professional interface many dental schools lack. Rather than lose that,
we decided to renovate to maximize the space we have, using it in a more effective manner without leaving the “superblock” of the medical center.


Lomboy: We have started to celebrate our centennial. What does this anniversary mean to the school?

Stohler: In my opinion, the most important event in the school’s history happened 99 years ago with the foundation for the College of Dental Medicine. The founders made a commitment to advance dentistry as a part of medicine. That’s our legacy. It’s a tradition that we need to polish a bit but we are lucky today to have such a strong partner in the medical school. My role as dean is made stronger through an exceptional partnership with the medical school dean, Lee Goldman. While celebrating our legacy, we need to also focus on our future. By combining a commitment to our future with a celebration of our past, we will best serve the College of Dental Medicine, its students, and its alumni.