By Timothy Hyland
Coni Fadigan is so deeply embedded in the history of DOCS Education that it's accurate to say that she was working on behalf of the organization before it even existed.
Fadigan, currently DOCS Education's Chief of Staff, has been a central figure in its founding, growth, and ongoing development. She’s also been an essential resource not only for founder and president Dr. Michael D. Silverman, but also for the more than 24,000 dentists and dental professionals who have embraced sedation dentistry on behalf of their patients over the past 20 years.
A former dental hygienist who pretty much ended up in her current role by happenstance, Fadigan acknowledges that her career has taken her places that she could never have dreamed.
A Positive Impact
But the journey, she says, has been more than just enjoyable.
“It has been very rewarding,” Fadigan says. “You never would have guessed [Dr. Silverman or I] would be where we are today. But we have contributed to a lot of people getting help. And even if that stops tomorrow, we have had an impact on people's lives. A positive impact.”
Fadigan’s unexpected journey began in the mid-1990s when Dr. Silverman, then her boss at his thriving dental practice in suburban Philadelphia, attended a small course about the benefits of using oral sedation in a dental setting. The idea was quite simple, Fadigan recalls: many people are so deathly afraid of the dentist that they refuse to see a dentist at all.
For some patients, that means a lifetime of dental woes and, consequently, a less-than-happy, fulfilling life. If sedation could help those people overcome their fears, Dr. Silverman reasoned, why not pursue it with vigor?
“Dentistry abounds with people who would rather be doing anything else than be in that office,” Fadigan says. “We aren’t portrayed well in the media or the movies. We aren’t represented very well. And it’s also a very invasive procedure to have somebody that close to you doing something that could be considered barbaric to your mouth, even if the result is a better and healthier smile.”
Most dentists, she explains, are genuinely looking for ways to make things better for the people who see them.
Dr. Silverman was one such practitioner. Intrigued by the potential of sedation dentistry to provide people the help they need, he studied the safe protocols and then shared them with his staff.
To hear Fadigan tell it, the rest is history.
A Dental Thought Leader
The team in Silverman’s office may not have known it at the time, but they were about to play a defining role in the development and growth of sedation dentistry—not just across the country, but throughout much of Canada, as well. Tens of millions of once fearful and reluctant patients would soon be the beneficiaries.
As Dr. Silverman grew in stature as an educator and became recognized as one of the thought leaders in the field, his team would play an ever-expanding supporting role behind the scenes. Dentists around the country were becoming more interested in the benefits of oral sedation, and it fell to Dr. Silverman’s team – and, in large part, to Fadigan – to create the infrastructure and choreograph the processes required to make that happen.
“We started just developing a whole bunch of tools, and at some point Dr. Silverman was [running] groups, working with dentists from other parts of the country who were really interested in what he was doing,” Fadigan recalls. “So, we decided we would form this organization that would train dentists around the country on how to use the procedures safely. We expected it would last only last five years. We’d teach everyone, and then we’d be done. But obviously, it’s developed into something much bigger.”
Much bigger than they expected, true—and much more complicated, too.
As Fadigan and her colleagues would learn, they were truly on the forefront of safe, general dental care. So much so, in fact, that when they started investigating state dental regulations for oral sedation dentistry, they found that those regulations were all over the map, if they existed at all.
Letters had to be written and sent to state dental boards across the country, and then all of the responses cataloged, just so DOCS Education could provide dentists with the basic information they needed to safely put sedation into practice in their state or province.
As time passed, Dr. Silverman’s original one-day training course expanded to three days in order to ensure that dentists and their team members were prepared to help patients from the time they first phoned for an appointment until they were safely escorted home by a family member or friend.
And all along, Fadigan and her team had to keep up with the ever-changing regulatory landscape: they dealt with opposition from oral surgeons and other special interests; they kept tabs on changing technologies and medical equipment; they continually updated the curriculum to make sure they were providing dentists the most current and safest protocols possible.
Doing Double Duty
For years, Fadigan was helping with all of these tasks while also continuing to work with patients as a dental hygienist. It was a lot of work – perhaps more than she bargained for – and eventually, the volume of work meant that Fadigan had to step away from the dentist’s chair and focus all her energies on DOCS Education.
“I had been blessed to be able to work with the people who benefited from [sedation dentistry], so I knew the importance of making sure it was available to them,” Fadigan says. “You don't really think, ‘Oh I'm not doing hygiene anymore.’ It was just that one day there was too much for me to do and somebody else had to take over the other things.
“Eventually something had to give,” she continues. “It was a small business, which means you have to do everything, whether you’re skilled at it or not. … It was a big lift.”
It’s a big lift that, in actuality, continues to this day.
But like virtually everyone at DOCS Education, Fadigan believes all the long hours, hard work, and even the regulatory fights are worth it—both for their member dentists and, perhaps more importantly, for their patients and the vast improvement that sedation dentistry has meant for their oral health and quality of life. “We see people who see their smile for the first time, and actually cry,” Fadigan says.
Access to Care
Going forward, Fadigan shares that her wish for DOCS Education is that the organization continue to do what it’s always done: promote the benefits and practice of sedation dentistry, and by extension expand access to dental care.
There are likely to remain more challenges, especially as state regulators are pushed by special interest groups to curtail the ability of general dentists to offer their patients oral sedation.
But as somebody who has worked on the front lines of dentistry, watching many patients struggle through even the most common dental treatments – and as somebody who, on a very personal level, later saw her mom overcome her fears and get the treatment she needed because of sedation dentistry – Fadigan remains committed to her mission, and that of her organization: creating an easier pathway to healthy smiles, and happier lives.
“That’s worth fighting for,” she says. “You know, it's worth helping people.”
Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.