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Improving Access To Oral Health Care

Improving Access To Oral Health CareAs head of Delta Dental of Massachusetts, Tufts graduate and trustee Kathleen O’Loughlin has made it her mission to improve access to oral health care for residents in the state.

Boston [02.05.07] Kathleen O’Loughlin, a 1981 graduate of Tufts School of Dental Medicine and a Tufts trustee, is not one to shy away from a challenge. So in 2002, when the Delta Dental of Massachusetts Board of Directors tapped her to take over as the company’s president and CEO, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a leap of faith,” O’Loughlin—who was then a practicing dentist with no corporate experience—told the Boston Herald. “My husband thought I was out of my mind.”

Admittedly, O’Loughlin, who had served on the board of directors for more than a decade before taking the helm at Delta Dental, questioned her decision. “I might have known a lot about the business being on the board,” she told the Herald. “But that is nowhere near what you need to know as a manager.”

To gain a better sense of the company, O’Loughlin relied on the communication skills she perfected while working as a dentist. After graduating from the dental school—where she was both president and valedictorian of her class—O’Loughlin started her own practice, where she developed a knack for conversation—and for putting people at ease.

According to the newspaper, when O’Loughlin took over as head of Delta Dental, she talked directly to employees and addressed their fears about the future of the company. From those conversations, she gained the support of the people working beneath her and developed a solid understanding of the organization and its corporate culture.

But O’Loughlin was quick to point out that it took some time to adjust to the transition from clinician to corporate executive. “It took me about two years before I felt comfortable in my own skin,” said O’Loughlin. New territory for her included working for a 14-member board of directors and slowing her decision-making pace, which had to be quick when she worked as a clinician.

According to the newspaper, O’Loughlin’s goal has always been “to achieve within Massachusetts the best dental health possible and the broadest access to dental care.”

While the challenge may have been daunting, O’Loughlin made it look easy, the Herald reported, noting that she approached her position at Delta Dental with “a brilliant mind, endless energy and customer understanding.” With O’Loughlin in the corner office, the Herald added, the company “maintains its leadership position in providing commercial dental benefits and the administration of public dental claims with an emphasis on disease prevention.”

One Delta Dental initiative that has flourished during O’Loughlin tenure is the Oral Health Foundation—which seeks to improve the oral health of underserved residents in the state. According to the Herald, the Foundation now awards $4 million in grant funding each year to community organizations for oral health promotion. In 2006, Delta Dental of Massachusetts also awarded $5 million to the Tufts School of Dental Medicine to endow a chair in public health and community service and to bolster its outreach programs.

Beyond public health, O’Loughlin, who has a master’s degree in public health and health care management from the Harvard School of Public Health, is also focused on strengthening the business and staving off competitors. “In my mind, that’s all about increasing value and getting the costs down and doing it simultaneously,” she told the Herald.

On her agenda for the near future, O’Loughlin told the newspaper, is improving the company’s client services.

“Where we’d like to head next is looking at the data inside our system to help benefit decision-makers make better choices regarding what their employees might need now and in the future, so it’s more like a partnership,” she told the Herald.

Her long-range goal, O’Loughlin told the newspaper, is to grow Delta Dental.

“In my mind, it’s grow or die, so the need to come up with creative ways to grow that don’t jeopardize our core business is always urgent,” she explained to the Herald. “And with being swept up in the cost pressures companies face when buying benefit packages, it’s really important for us to promote good oral health as a very important piece of good general health.”


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