Diversifying dentistry starts with youth
On a rainy day in July, I toured the beautiful and innovative Spear Campus. I came to the wall that boldly displayed Spear’s mission and vision statements:
The statement was simple yet powerful. As I reflected on it further, my thoughts were divided. As a dentist, I pride myself in delivering great dental care to my patients. Yet, as the founder of the nonprofit Diversity In Dentistry Mentorships, I can’t help but think how many qualified students will never pursue greatness in dentistry because they lacked direction, opportunity, and hope in themselves for something better. This is why I have called upon my colleagues and dental partners like Spear to support our grassroots efforts to lengthen and strengthen the pipeline from middle school to dental school for students to discover dentistry and broaden the diversity and preparedness of the applicant pool.
Diversity In Dentistry Mentorships, Inc. was started as a passion project, turned nonprofit, after I learned there had been little change in the last 15 years on the racial and ethnic mix of dentists in America. Recent statistics from the ADA Health Policy Institute report1 highlights this disproportion with only 3.8% of all dentists in the U.S. being Black, 5.2% Hispanic and a mere 1.1% being American Indians, Alaska Natives, or Pacific Islanders. With a dismal 16% enrollment of underrepresented minorities, diversity in dentistry will not improve unless we act now. Although the task at hand seems daunting, it really isn’t if we all do our part.
Our inaugural “Diversify Dentistry Youth Summit at Spear” was held on Nov. 1, 2021. Nearly 30 teens from underrepresented groups were paired with mentor dentists to learn about the profession. They created impressions in the lab and learned about advances in digital dentistry, and they finished up the day with a Q&A with a panel of dentists and a moving white coat ceremony. I will never forget seeing their eyes light up and their posture straightened as I draped the white coat on each mentee. I told them their coats will hang in their closet as a reminder of what is in their grasp with hard work and guidance provided by their mentors who believe in them.
“I’ve never seen diverse dentists before!”
“Dentistry is something I want to do now after my special time here.”
These were just a couple of the accolades shared by our high school mentees. The Youth Summit at Spear provided an opportunity for these students to see and feel dentistry with a diverse group of dentist mentors who shared stories of their journey, insightful advice, and their own precious time to empower them to embrace the possibility of something greater for themselves.
Most of these students never considered dentistry as a career option much like my own mentee, Dr. Walter Fuentes, a Latino pediatric dentist. I hope you will continue to read on to hear his experiences and why diversity in dentistry matters in the second half of this article.
Why diversifying dentistry is important
Growing up, it never occurred to me that I could become a dentist. In fact, I had never met a dentist from my ethnic background. It was not until I was in my third year of college that I learned about dentistry as a potential career.
Interestingly, this realization occurred while volunteering abroad in Ghana, where I met a dentist who was passionate about serving his community. Excited by this new career potential, I looked into the field of dentistry upon returning to the states and began shadowing a dentist who was to become my mentor. I learned about the positive impact dentists can have on patients and also the lack of access to dental care that many families, including my own, face.
What I found most interesting is that the same communities that lack access to oral healthcare are those communities who are least represented in dentistry. According to the CDC, caries disease is at least 10% more prevalent amongst Hispanic and Black non-Hispanic children when compared to their White non-Hispanic counterparts.2 As mentioned earlier, only 5.2% and 3.8% of dentists in the United States are Hispanic and Black, respectively. Although jarring, this statistic is not entirely surprising to me as I consider my dental school experience. Of the 88 students who were accepted and enrolled in my dental school class, four were Hispanic and four were Black. Despite the school’s initiative to make our student body more diverse, I always felt like an underrepresented minority.
So why does this need to change? America is becoming more diverse, and as a result it only makes sense that our patient population is too.3 In order to mitigate access to care issues, we need the dental field to be more representative of the population we serve. Marginalized communities such as the Hispanic, Black, and Native American populations experience iatrophobia, but having more healthcare providers from these backgrounds can help alleviate these communities’ mistrust in the healthcare system. As a pediatric dentist, I have witnessed this in the Federally Qualified Healthcare Center I work in. As the only Latino dentist serving a patient pool that is majority Hispanic, I often hear the excitement in the voices of my patients and their parents because their child has a provider to whom they can relate and by whom they feel understood. This should not be a rare experience for our patients but instead the norm.
Now that we recognize the importance, how do we create positive change? The solution is multifaceted. We need to consider cultural literacy when looking at dental school applicants, but most importantly we should focus on outreach in K-12 schools. We need to seize the opportunity to mentor children from underrepresented communities and help them realize that being a dentist is within their reach. As dentists we can provide mentorship for our patients, for children in local schools and for community groups. Another great way to become a mentor is by signing up to be a mentor through https://diversitydentistry.org.4
The dental profession has a responsibility to more closely mirror the representation of our patients. Increasing diversity in our profession will create trust in dentistry, increase access to healthcare, and as a result improve the oral health of our patients. Let’s show our patients that we welcome diversity in our profession.
Drs. Laila Hishaw and Walter Fuentes are guest contributors to Spear Digest.
This content was originally published here.