Whether she’s motorcycling through the Alps or hiking through Southeast Asia to bring aid where it’s needed most, Dr. Jessica Buehler approaches what she does with passion, courage and commitment. That includes her work rewriting Delta Dental’s Quality Improvement Plan and bettering the oral health of members through her wellness webinars as Delta Dental’s Director of Dental Affairs.
We recently caught up with Dr. Buehler to discuss her work at Delta Dental, her time as a frontline provider during the early days of COVID and her dual passions for traveling and musical theater.
I think a lot of people, including even some dentists, might be surprised to learn that a dental insurance company like Delta Dental has dentists on staff. Can you tell us about the work you do for Delta Dental?
My work is to support our quality program. Insurance plans are regulated by the Department of Insurance and other regulatory bodies to ensure that the care is appropriate. It takes clinicians to be a part of that process so that key decisions about care and quality aren’t made by laypeople. They’re made by clinicians who have practiced and treated patients just like our dentists.
What initially led you to dentistry as a career?
I was overseas on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama working with an indigenous tribe on a summer mission trip. I volunteered to help a Panamanian dentist who was assigned by the government to do health work on the island. I saw severe infections — people who had no access to care. It opened up my heart to this way to impact the world; it showed me how much dentists can improve people’s lives, not only in the U.S. but also overseas where people don’t have access to care.
What are the biggest rewards of your work now?
I feel my ability to impact oral health in this country is much bigger working for a plan. When you’re working as a chairside dentist, your impact is limited to only those patients you touch or the community events you volunteer at. Right now, I’m giving enrollee wellness webinars that are live-cast across the country to hundreds of enrollees at once. Having an impact on a stage that’s much bigger is really fun for me.
What do you miss most about being a chairside dentist? What do you miss least?
I miss the connection with my patients. You don’t realize when you go into dental school as a young person that your patients follow you for years and years. I saw couples get married and have babies. I saw babies grow into high schoolers. I saw couples get divorced and people pass. You are an intimate part of people’s lives over time. It feels like you’re checking in with old friends every time you see these patients. And when I went through those big life events like getting married and having a baby, my patients were there for me. I’m separated from that now, and I miss that.
In terms of what I miss the least: staffing. Staffing is impossible right now. Overall, dentistry is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s not for the faint of heart.
I was so impressed to learn that you were a frontline provider during the early days of the COVID pandemic. It’s only been a couple years since then, but many of us have forgotten (or blocked out!) how very scary that time was, how many unknowns there were. Can you tell me about your work during that time?
When COVID hit, I was a regional clinical director supervising over 80 clinicians and specialists in Seattle. We were the epicenter of when it was first blowing up. Things were happening very fast, and there was very little guidance at that time, but we knew we had to do something to help. We had to make tough decisions about closing our offices: We had around 30 offices, and we went down to four.
The government was coming into dental offices and taking PPE, but we were expected to care for patients. My husband’s in construction, so he got a welding face shield for me and a construction and painting P100 respirator with a mask over the end. It wasn’t just about keeping myself safe. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety trying to keep my team safe. Some of my colleagues who worked for me had at-risk relatives at home. Some of them had health conditions. I was driving around the state to gather whatever supplies I could find in the construction world to provide to my doctors who were working those frontlines. It was a really scary time.
What do you think are some of the most important things Delta Dental can do to help maintain strong, positive relationships with dentists?
I think being empathetic to how hard dentistry is. It’s easy to go into a dental office and think a dentist is just a “tooth-counter.” I’ve had people say to me, “You make way too much money for what you do.” But a lot of people have no idea what dentists do! It’s a really hard job. It’s even hard on your body, too. You have to manage the emotions of your patients; you have to manage your staff. It’s challenging to be a business leader and a clinician and everything else.
Speaking of playing multiple roles, I was interested to learn that you have a background in musical theater. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Do you feel that your work in theater and performance helped inform your daily work as a dentist at all? Do the two pursuits have anything in common?
My parents always said, “Do whatever you want. We know you’ll succeed at whatever you decide.” So, I got really involved in musical theater and lighting design when I was in college. I loved the theater, but I realized I was a bit too organized and Type A to hang forever in that world…
I still love and appreciate the theater, but I come from a science family, and I almost felt dentistry was a calling. Once I got it into my brain, I couldn’t get it out. But, the things I learned in the theater — to ground yourself, to speak and perform with confidence — are really important and have helped me grow a lot as a provider.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m an avid reader. I run a book club for a community inclusion group at Delta Dental, Women@Delta. I love everything outdoors: stand-up paddleboarding, snow skiing, camping, hiking, wakeboarding, all of it. Just put me outdoors and I’m a happy girl! I love to travel. I did a motorcycle tour through the Alps, hitting seven countries in Europe with my dad. He’s passed now, so that’s one of my favorite memories… I love Thailand. I love Australia. I’ve done work in Southeast Asia in countries that aren’t even open to Western aid. I backpacked in and brought dental tools and taken teeth out, all sorts of crazy stuff. I have a family now, so I don’t do as many risky things now, but I still love to travel!