Series: A Salute to the Women in Orthodontics – Dr. Katie Graber, DDS, MS

Welcome to our second edition of Dentsply Sirona Orthodontics’ “A Salute to the Women in Orthodontics” blog series.

Dr. Katie Graber, DDS, MS

One of the most interesting aspects of orthodontics is getting to know those who practice it—orthodontists. Each doctor we meet seems to have their own unique backstory on how they came to the profession. Sometimes it’s through family. Sometimes it’s through fate. Or in the case of our current “A Salute to the Women in Orthodontics” interviewee, Dr. Katie Graber, DDS, MS of Graber and Gyllenhaal Orthodontics, sometimes it’s a mix of the expected and unexpected.

Thank you for taking the time to share with us today. How did you end up in orthodontics?

I actually have a long family history in both Dentistry and Orthodontics. My mom, aunt and uncle are general dentists and I’m a 4th generation dental professional. My great-grandfather started the Graber tradition in dentistry in the St. Louis area graduating as president of his dental class in 1916. My grandfather started his orthodontic practice in 1946 here in the Chicagoland area which, subsequently my father and, of course, I joined as well as time went on. Last year we added a new partner Dr. Kelley Gyllenhaal and our practice name changed to Graber and Gyllenhaal Orthodontics.

Because of my family history, a lot of times colleagues and friends will tell me, “of course you were going to be an orthodontist!” But what they don’t know is that I actually started out in college for a degree and career in technical theatre.

Congratulations. Technical theatre is an orthodontics starting point we’ve never heard before!

The transition is not as crazy as it sounds. I loved building sets, carpentry and working with my hands. I loved doing the lighting design, sound design and I loved putting it all together.

It wasn’t until my guidance counselor sat me down and said, “You’re doing a great job and it’s clearly something that you love. You’ve got a 4.0 and your future is bright. Tell me about what kind of life you want to live.” I answered honestly, “Someday I’m going to have a successful career and a family.”

He replied, “You’re very successful now, and I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t be just as successful after graduation. But you should understand that success in technical theatre means you’re going to be traveling with a show. You’re going to be visiting different cities and staying in different places all the time. If that’s really what you’re looking for, then I think you’ve chosen a great career.” This gave me pause.

This discussion happened right before a summer break, so I decided I would go home and rethink my future. Around the same time, I got home from school and my mother (who I mentioned before was a general dentist) told me her assistant had her baby prematurely and she was stuck without a dental assistant. In a bind, she asked if I would come and work for her during her assistant’s absence.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. Once I was actually working in the practice, I saw the relationships she had developed with her patients, I saw her completing precise restorations and how she enjoyed providing care while working with her hands—and her mind.

At first, I resisted, since everyone expected me to go into dentistry. But once I made the connection between what I was doing in technical theatre and what I was doing in the practice—I was building something in both—it became my goal. I switched focus and became a microbiology major.

The past five years have been a time of great change in the profession. What kind of role does technology play in how you practice?

There have been a lot of technological advancements and it’s been really amazing for patient care. Technology gives us better visualization, better individualization, better treatment options and greater accessibility. It makes excellent patient outcomes much more routine.

In my mind I sometimes go back to when my grandfather was first practicing. He put metal bands around each tooth, and he had to use a little hammer to get them on! By the time all the bands were placed, the teeth were more crooked because of the metal between the teeth—and there was a lot of pain for the patient!

Thanks to advances in material sciences, braces are smaller and the wires have become more efficient at alignment. Our understanding of biology also grown and the scientific basis for clinical orthodontics has been enhanced. Today, we’re customizing everything to harness the power of three-dimensional, individualized diagnosis, robotic technology, artificial intelligence and material advancements in plastics.

I understand that you’re conducting classes on SureSmile, is that correct?

That is correct.

Am I correct in my understanding that SureSmile isn’t specific to brackets or aligners?

SureSmile is a three-dimensional toolset that allows us to customize treatment from diagnostics to therapeutics; from initial consult to retention. The software itself is agnostic. As the doctor, I’m in complete control and I decide where things are going to go. The teeth are really agnostic as well. They don’t know what’s pushing them into alignment. It’s just applied force over time. It is doctor driven and patient centric with achievable goals and treatment outcomes.

In our practice, we treat people based on their needs and goals. SureSmile works first as a 3D diagnostic aid, and the doctor then determines the treatment modality options. Maybe the patient will have treatment with aligners. Maybe we’re doing clear braces or lingual braces. We also do hybrid treatment. This can be where one arch is in aligners and one arch in brackets and because we are working on the same platform, treatment is coordinated even with two very different therapeutic appliances. Another option is a combination, where there are braces placed for more difficult tooth movements, and then the treatment is finished with aligners. The treatment is based on the individual’s needs and desires. The software is the patient management program ensuring the continuity and predictability in the delivery of treatment.

Obviously you aren’t the type of clinician who finds the technology threatening?

Well, let’s step back for a moment. In every industry, technology adoption follows a basic bell curve. Orthodontics is no different. You have the renegades who are up for trying anything. Then you’ve got the early adopters who embrace technology, but don’t want to be the pioneers. Then you get to the meaty part of the bell curve, where adoption of the technology becomes the standard.

The type of person that’s going to go into dentistry, for the most part, is going to be a “Type A” individual who is more resistant to change…at least in my experience that’s what I’ve seen. Those types of people, and I include myself, can have a hard time adapting to new ideas and adopting new concepts.

Orthodontic treatment is based in scientific principles and outcomes and success measures have been proven. It works. Think about three-dimensional diagnostic imaging. For a long time, clinicians have done pretty well using 2D x-rays. Why would they want to deviate from the known quantity? Moving away from something that’s proven can feel very uncomfortable. Therefore, it takes a lot of time to get most people to that hump in the middle. Having noted the reticence to change, as a professional we are challenged to always look for better treatment for our patients. Technology is providing some of these options to our specialty.

Well you have a technologically advanced practice. How did you reconcile your mindset with embracing technology the way you have?

[LAUGHS] Honestly, a lot of it is my dad! People assume because of our age difference, I’m the early adopter. It’s kind of the other way around. In addition to practicing as an orthodontist, my father is an orthodontic author and an editor for the specialty scan edition of the Journal of the American Dental Association. As a result, he has exposure to all these new things.

He loves bringing new ideas home and he’ll tell me, “Oh my gosh Katie, this is the coolest thing, we need to try it!” He has introduced me to a lot of new concepts and great technology. It’s allowed us to have a window to be in that early adopter field and bring those new technologies into our office ahead of the curve. As a result of this early adoption, we’re able to improve on the care provided to our patients.

Can you talk a little bit about how being a woman influences how you practice Orthodontics?

I am 100% biased in this statement but I feel as though being in dentistry is the perfect career for a woman who wants to have more than just their job. I love my job. I’m very passionate about my family centered practice and the day-to-day practice of orthodontic specialty care.

But…I also love my home family life. I really treasure spending time with kids and with my husband. I love reading books. I love exercising. I love being part of my community. I feel like being in dentistry gives me the flexibility to do both (be a mom and an owner of a practice.) I also have flexibility by being in a multi-doctor practice. When I had each of my children I could take 4 weeks off and I wasn’t worried that patient care would be compromised. All of which is to say that the practice of orthodontics is a great career choice for a woman.

I also think women have a unique role when it comes to patient care and patient delivery. Research suggests that over 75% of the time, a woman is the driver for healthcare. By that I mean it’s either a mom bringing the patient in, a mom coming in to get treatment for themselves, or a wife “persuading” her husband to come in for treatment. Not all the time—but for most, a woman is driving the bus!

And I’m like them. I know they can see themselves in me. The kids know that I’m a mom because I’ve got pictures of my kids up and I tell funny stories about them. Having those commonalities, those life experiences, makes it much easier for me to make a relationship with my patients and their families. It also makes it easier for the patient’s parents and family members to connect with me.

Thank you for a wonderful interview. Is there anything you’d like to end with?

One of the things I will leave you with is an observation I share with a lot of young practicing orthodontics and dental students. I try and express this concept that having a “balanced life” is a kind of fairytale. You’re never going to be able to feel like you’re 100% the best wife, 100% the best mom, 100% the best boss, 100% the best partner. You just can’t. Nobody can.

If you’re constantly feeling like you have to be that way, you’re never going to feel like you’re successful. But if you just try and be the best version of yourself every day, you’ll be successful on all scores. I think there’s a big challenge with women like myself, who try to do so much, and we constantly feel like we’re not doing a good enough job. We need to recognize that as long as we’re doing our best, that’s more than enough for all of our professional and personal life’s challenges.

Kelley A. Gyllenhaal, DDS, MS; Katie Graber, DDS, MS; and Lee W. Graber, DDS, MS, PhD
Dr. Graber and family

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