Educator Spotlight: Dr. Gary L. Stafford, Marquette University School of Dentistry

Leave it to an ADEA CCI Liaison to find an ingenious way of engaging part-time faculty in evidence-based decision-making—a way so ingenious, in fact, that it also speeds curricular change, streamlines improvements in the clinic, and promotes a culture of trust.  

Dr. Stafford For WebOf course the real impetus,” says Dr. Gary L. Stafford, only half in jest, “was to spread some of the workload off of me.”

As Chair of the Department of General Dental Sciences at the Marquette University School of Dentistry, Dr. Stafford may well appreciate this particular benefit of his innovative approach to evidence-based dentistry (EBD), but a closer look makes clear that he also had higher motives for establishing the department's Advisory Council. This nine-member, interdisciplinary group of key departmental faculty was created to encourage and facilitate the use of evidence-based methodologies in decision-making around curricular change. The council meets monthly to contemplate clinical, curricular, and procedural questions. Dr. Stafford assigns each question to a council member who in turn forms and leads a four-person task force responsible for coming up with an answer. 

Dr. Stafford draws a sharp distinction between these task forces and the typical standing committee that too often rehashes the same problems for months on end. Each task force is expected to research its question using evidence-based methodology and the same template (a slightly modified version of Dr. John D. Rugh’s CATs form) that predoctoral students use in their study of EBD.  

A month later, each task force reports back to the council, which votes on its recommendations. So far at least, those recommendations have all been approved, and once that occurs, “we integrate it into the curriculum and, once it’s been taught, introduce the change in the clinic,” says Dr. Stafford. 

Like most executives, Dr. Stafford retains the right to veto the council’s decisions, but he has yet to do so.  “That’s a result of the culture here at Marquette. I have a tremendous amount of trust in those who serve on this council. These people work hard. They’re the givers. They’re willing to take on challenges because they believe in the change process, too.” 

That trust appears to breed trust in the process among the rest of the faculty as well. “I think the part-time faculty recognize the value in EBD, and they encourage it with the students.  They like the idea that a decision such as what material we’re using on the clinic floor—it’s not just me making a decision on a whim. There is method to the madness.” 

Dr. Stafford practiced general dentistry for 20 years, but coming from a family of educators, he says, “Teaching is ingrained in my soul.” He entered academia eight years ago wanting to make a mark.  When the opportunity arose to participate in ADEA CCI as a Liaison, he jumped at the chance, and in 2007 he seized another opportunity—a two-week course in EBD at Oxford University—which he says “really opened my eyes.”   

Eager to promote EBD at Marquette, Dr. Stafford introduced the concept in a third-year course, Clinical Restorative Procedures 1, and asked students to bring questions to class from patients they had encountered on the clinic floor.  Since then, EBD has spread throughout a rapidly changing curriculum at Marquette, and Dr. Stafford couldn’t be happier.

“Changing one person's life is great,” he remarks, reflecting on his goals as an educator. “Changing 80 students’ lives is great. But changing a piece of curriculum or how we do things—if we have success here that could be translated to other schools, that's major change, and that's the scope I'm looking at.” 

As Dr. Stafford pointed out in a poster he presented at the 2012 ADEA Annual Session and Exhibition, it was relatively simple to create the Advisory Council, but its impacts have been widely felt. It has not only given part-time faculty an opportunity to practice evidence-based decision-making. It has also helped create consensus for departmental decisions.