The Origin of the Santa Fe Group

More than twenty years ago a group of five dental educators and scientists began to meet regularly to discuss the future of health care with special reference to oral health, dental education and research in the United States. These five individuals – Drs. Larry Meskin; Dominick DePaola; Michael Alfano; Harold Slavkin; and Arthur Dugoni (the “Founders”) – were well positioned collectively as educators, researchers, policy advocates, professional association and federal program and corporate leaders. Accordingly, they began to address some of the challenging health problems, as well as to seize key opportunities, in the interest of improved health through the integration of oral and general health strategies.

The first issue emphasized by the group, early and effective oral cancer detection, is a good example of the manner in which the group addressed a public health issue to promote health. Armed with national data indicating that, although all dentists are formally trained in the performance of clinical examination to detect oral cancer, only a small percentage actually conduct these examinations regularly on their patients, the group used a variety of tools to begin to change the cancer diagnostic paradigm. These included:

  • A now classic editorial, Use it or lose it!, underscoring the importance of conducting regular oral cancer examinations published in the Journal of the American Dental Association by then editor, Dr. Larry Meskin.
  • A national call for research programs with emphasis on oral cancer, for both applied and basic research, issued by Dr. Harold Slavkin, then Director of the NIDCR, who, jointly with Dr. Rick Klausner, then Director of NCI, was able to support five Centers for Head & Neck Cancer and a number of hypothesis-driven research grants in the area.
  • The creation of the Oral Cancer Consortium, a group of 35 institutions in the northeast, founded by Dr. Michael Alfano, then dean of the NYU College of Dentistry, that began to conduct free annual cancer screenings and ‘Oral Cancer Walkathons’, which garnered much media attention.

Slowly, these efforts, combined with those of many others, began to make a difference in the perception of dentists and patients about the importance of oral cancer detection. Importantly, subsequent surveys showed that the rates of oral cancer examinations increased significantly. Moreover, other individuals and groups, such as the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), were launched around that time and a synergistic expansion of the importance of oral cancer detection ensued.

The success of the Oral Cancer campaign inspired the Founders to appreciate the catalytic power of their focus, and energized them to expand their efforts. The expansion led directly to the creation of the Santa Fe Group as several new thought-leaders – Drs. Dushanka Kleinman; Linda Niessen; Richard D’Eustachio and Mr. Steve Kess – joined the five original founders at Dr. Meskin’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico shortly before the turn of the century to plan the future of the group. During an intensive three-day working visit to Santa Fe, operating policies and By-Laws were written and the mission of the newly minted Santa Fe Group (SFG) was refined.

Santa Fe Group members are interprofessional highly accomplished individuals that include dentists, physicians, nurses, public health advocates, business leaders and scholars. We are organized as a not-for-profit corporation (501c3). Importantly, the SFG serves as a neutral convener of various thought-leaders and stakeholders who focus on the key evolving issues of the day in an invitation-only small meeting conducted in the French tradition of a salon.

In recent years, the Group has taken on a variety of critical issues including: reform of dental education; the role of dental professionals in childhood obesity; the effect of periodontal care to reduce total healthcare costs; and most recently, the importance of adding a dental benefit to Medicare. As the issues have expanded, so have the approaches that the Group uses which now include: salons; white papers; a comprehensive website and expanded social media activity; editorials; consortium building; and direct engagement with federal entities including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Congressional Budget Office.