A Dallas oral surgeon is making an impact far beyond his practice and his city. He's become an influential advocate for global healthcare initiatives.
The level of disclosure that comes from J. Michael Ray, DDS, MPH is unexpected, but reveals the down-to-earth nature of this oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
“I’m not your typical anything that you’re going to run across,” he says. “If you want an oddball, you’ve got me.”
Odd, maybe, but if being odd equates to being successful and interesting, then so be it.
In addition to his private practice in Dallas, TX, Ray holds a faculty appointment at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine where he plays an active role in developing global health curriculum for Harvard. But if not for some advice he received in college, that might not be the case.
As a child, Ray had his sights set on becoming a family practice physician. But when he got to college, he met several physicians who changed his way of thinking.
“They felt that they were really working for insurance companies rather than for themselves or for their patients,” Ray explains. “They had to see so many patients during the day just to make ends meet.”
The physicians explained that the reasons they became family practice physicians were the same that Ray had. You get to know your patients, you get to know your patients’ families, and you develop relationships with them over the years. But in an age when patients frequently change insurance plans, that doesn't really happen anymore.
“They said that all of their friends who were dentists have the ability to get to know their patients, to get to know their patients’ families,” Ray says. “They do develop relationships, they don’t work for insurance companies. So if that’s the thing that drew me into medicine, I should look at dentistry instead. And they were right.”
Identifying a Need
Ray recently took a year off and went to Harvard to obtain his Masters in Public Health. His reason for doing so, he says, was the global health aspect of public health that he found fascinating.
“I first experienced it when I was in the military,” says Ray, who served in the US Navy from 1999-2010, and is currently a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves. “I traveled a lot, went to a lot of countries seeing patients and while some of them were pretty interesting places, there were also some pretty awful places. But I began to see a worldwide need for quality dentistry and quality dentists.”
Ray’s opportunity to help address that need came while obtaining his MPH. He learned of a project that had been in the works for several years. The Ministry of Health in Rwanda was determined to improve the country’s healthcare system. Part of that initiative included opening the country’s first school of dentistry. With assistance from the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Health Initiatives, and a multitude of US health-related institutions, the project is nearing fruition.
“This is a big project,” Ray says. “I am a small part of it.”
Small, maybe, but no less important. Ray is involved in curriculum development in oral surgery and clinical competency. He says the curriculum he has designed together with input from faculty members in Rwanda is very exciting, though it’s still in the beginning stages.
“It’s wonderful to work with people in other countries, from other cultures for the same goals as you have, which is to improve the healthcare of their country, including oral health,” Ray says. “The actual tangible benefit hasn’t been seen yet, but it’s exciting to be there in the early stages.”
Ray finished dental school in 1999 and went directly into the Navy. It was there that he applied for residency training in oral and maxillofacial surgery. He was selected and was sent to a civilian hospital for his residency training. But what he saw and experienced during his naval travels—which included four years of sea duty—had the greatest impact on his professional career.
“I was stationed in some great places, but I also saw some pretty awful things,” he recalls. “I was deployed on the USS Comfort. That’s a hospital ship that went down to Haiti after the earthquake five years ago. I treated facial trauma day-in and day-out there. And then about a year and a half after that I went to Afghanistan treating facial trauma patients there as well. And everything that I did in my practice in the navy made me so much better when it comes to practice in the civilian world.”
How so? Ray says it was the depth of the experience he received. The injuries he treated were horrific—the type not often seen in the civilian world. As such, he’s better equipped to handle those situations when they do come up.
Ray, who is 42, single, and lives in Dallas, says he enjoys golf, playing tennis, and travelling both domestically and internationally. He also says it’s very rewarding being involved in the work that the Harvard School of Dental Medicine does.
“Harvard has a lot of money, and I really believe they spent it in the right place, and on the right things,” he says. Then he laughs. “And that’s coming from a southern Republican. But it’s really an honor that they saw enough in me and believed in me and the work that I do to include me in part of their project.”
Closer to home, Ray says what he likes most about his job is the ability to make a significant and lasting impact on the quality of a patient’s health.
“Too many people don’t realize that dentistry is healthcare,” he says. “It’s a big aspect of healthcare, just like any other system in the body. Too many people look at it as elective work that, ‘Oh, I need to get it done, but I also need to get my car fixed,’ but it truly is healthcare So being able to make a lasting and meaningful impact in someone’s health is probably the best part of it for me.”