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Debra B. Williams
President, National Dental Assistant Association
Manager, Early Life Dental Efforts, Detroit, Michigan
In speaking about the significant nationwide changes in the dental assisting profession, Debra B. Williams always returns to the fundamental values of providing oral healthcare. "As a dental assistant, one should always work for the benefit of the practice and the patients," she says.
Williams speaks from experience—she still works in the pediatric office where she began her career almost 27 years ago. Because she works with children, the rapport Williams develops with the patients and their families is one of the most important aspects of her duties. These relationships can become long-term, multigenerational connections, she says. "Some of our past patients are now bringing their children back to our office."
With a background in finance, she first joined the practice to do administrative and collection work, Williams did not know anything about dentistry. "I took some continuing education courses to increase my dental knowledge, and eventually I became the office manager," she explains. "Later, I enrolled in some dental assisting classes to better understand what the clinical assistants were doing."
Because she did not initially have the background, dental assisting was challenging, Williams says. "However, I wanted to stay with it to see if I could do it and how great it could be. Over time, I developed a passion for it."
This passion extended to leadership roles in her professional associations. Williams has been a long-term member of both the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) and the Michigan Dental Assistants Association (MDAA). She has served as a delegate for the MDAA for 5 years, and as the secretary of the local (Southwestern) component for 2 years. Since 1989, Williams has been involved with the National Dental Assistants Association (NDAA). "I've greatly enjoyed going to the sessions and gaining more knowledge, finding out what is happening in the different states, what the requirements are, and how all these issues are related. I started out by working at the registration desk at conventions, because I felt that there had to be something that I could do."
In addition to involvement in national organizations, "we have a local NDAA component here, the Wolverine Dental Assistant Society, which has an active membership," Williams adds. "I serve as the president for the Wolverine Dental Assistants."
As the auxiliary arm of the National Dental Association (NDA), the NDAA is dedicated to serving the thousands of minority dental assistants in the field today. When Williams first began attending the NDA annual session, she registered as an auxiliary because she was under the belief that dental assisting membership was only for clinical staff. "I would attend the courses to enhance my administrative knowledge," she explains. "The more I participated, the more I realized that people who joined the auxiliary were mostly the spouses, and I didn't fit in there, so my best fit was with the dental assistant group."
Eventually Williams became the journal editor for the NDAA annual session booklet that is included in the registration packet. "I was responsible for obtaining advertising from dental offices to support us," she says. "At the same time, I took the opportunity to talk about membership, and the dentists saw the value and would then pay for and bring their staff." Through these efforts, she became a voice for promoting membership.
Williams was later elected to the NDAA board as secretary/treasurer, holding that position for almost 5 years, and became president for a 2-year term in 2009. As president, her goal has been to create a new way of increasing membership. "The NDAA is 47 years old, and certain aspects of the organization have not changed with the times—we're in the process of revamping our approach. My goal when I first took office as president was to re-create and redefine our annual procedures to make the organization more inviting and appealing to our membership. We have also been in the process of revising our bylaws and that is finally completed." In addition, the organization has obtained 501c3 status, so that it may solicit sponsorship.
The results of these efforts are increased attendance and participation at the annual conferences and conventions. "We did very well at the meeting in Hawaii, and we're anticipating a great turnout in Baltimore this year," Williams says.
In addition to its meetings, the NDAA provides continuing education and promotes certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) as a requirement for employment. "We want to establish a network to refer members to potential employers," Williams explains. "Eventually, we want to have a classified section for dental assistant employment—expanded functions, chairside, or administrative. We would provide that networking opportunity for them."
When asked for her thoughts on the profession, Williams stresses that dental assistants need to be committed on many levels. "There's a vast opportunity for knowledge in the profession of dental assisting," she says. "We should be aiming for a new level that would redefine what a dental assistant really is. In my opinion, the dental assistant is really the entire dental team, not only the chairside assistant."
Williams definitely sees the profession growing and becoming a more prestigious career choice. "I say that because now we see so many more, and different, educational opportunities for the dental assistant," she explains. "However, too many dental assistants graduate from non-accredited dental assisting programs—some of which cost a great deal—only to discover that they need to spend more money on additional education to achieve the DANB Certification and their state credential. For those of us who have a true passion and knowledge of what dental assisting really is, we need to help promote education, certification, and accreditation of dental assisting programs.
"Dental assistants are the type of people who are committed to others," Williams concludes. "They take it to the next level in patient care, and they see projects through until the end. Working through our professional organizations allows us to shape our future."