By Dr. Shilpy Bhandari
Lack of diversity has been a perennial challenge in medical and dental workplaces. Inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability) into the health workforce could help reach underserved populations, eliminate health disparities, and make health services more affordable and open to diverse populations.
In this article, we discuss the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in dental workplaces, and how it can be improved.
How Diverse is the Dental Profession?
In the U.S., Blacks, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians, and Alaska Natives are considered underrepresented ethnicities. According to the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute survey (HPI) in 2020, of the 201,117 working dentists 70.2% were White, 18.0% were Asian, 5.9% were Hispanic, and 3.8% were Black.
According to a 2019 report from the American College Health Association, 20.0% of 54,497 U.S. undergraduate students and 17.7% of the 11,561 graduate and professional students identified themselves as LGBTQIA. However, information on sexual orientation and gender identity is still unknown for dental students.
The diversity in the dental workforce reflects the diversity in dental schools. Over the years, the share of Asian and Hispanic dental students has increased and the share of white dentists has reduced. However, the share of Black dental students hasn’t improved. The sex diversification has positively changed, with nearly equal or slightly greater number of women (53.5%) graduating than men (46.4%). However, dental faculty who are responsible for recruiting and promoting coming generations of dental providers remain less diversified compared to students. Overall, there is a significant lag in the diversity of the dental workforce, including in support staff such as hygienists, technicians, and dental nurses.
Importance of Diversity in the Dental Workplace
Some of the benefits of diversifying the dental workplace are:
- It becomes easy to reach out to diverse patient groups, as similar backgrounds of patients and dental providers enable better relationships and communication.
- It helps dental providers better appreciate cultural factors that impact patients’ lifestyle (e.g., food habits, beliefs, customs, behaviors).
- A more diverse dental clinic sets an example by providing healthcare access to people from different backgrounds.
- Inclusion of diverse policymakers or leaders can help draft unbiased public or education policies crucial to increase the reach of dentistry.
Limitations of Diversification Efforts
- Inadequate awareness: Disparities at primary and secondary education levels deprive students from disadvantaged backgrounds of awareness about careers in medical, dental, and other health-related professional studies.
- Inadequate institutional support: Students from less-represented communities face a domino effect as their colleges are not able to adequately prepare them for medical or dental careers. They are not able to benefit from access to experienced healthcare professionals and mentorship opportunities available to other students.
- Limited financial support: Pursuing a career in dental schools or other health care courses is a costly affair. People from disadvantaged communities are uncertain about their ability to repay their education loan. The demand for pre-medical and pre-dental education forces some students to balance between education and employment.
- Lack of family support: Many families of minority populations lack knowledge about the courses and costs involved in pursuing a medical or dental career. Lack of family support and obligations to manage family expenses derail students from pursuing medical or dental careers.
- Societal barriers: The social exclusion, negative attitude, and discriminating behavior toward people based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation have resulted in isolation of some groups, creating a barrier to learning and participation at school and college levels.
- Unconscious bias of dentists: While the lack of diversity in dental clinics is a systemic problem, it’s intensified by unconscious biases of dental practitioners. This results in them hiring staff from similar backgrounds, even if the role does not require a professional degree (e.g., office staff).
How to Promote Diversity and Inclusion at the Dental Workplace
To build diversity and inclusion at the dental workplace, we need to first address issues at the secondary and dental school levels, improve public policy, and make a conscious effort to include a diverse workforce at the dental workplace.
Measures that can promote diversity at pre-college and dental school levels:
- Early identification of talent at pre-college levels and introducing mentorship programs that focus on recruitments into medical or dental schools.
- Assessment of attitude and perceptions of institutes towards diversity.
- Review of faculty and student recruitment practices in dental schools to consider qualified candidates irrespective of their background.
- Identify and encourage leaders from underserved populations who can serve as role models and policymakers and introduce equitable policies to serve diverse populations.
- Announce financial aids, scholarships, and easy loan repayment programs to encourage a large number of students from underrepresented communities.
- Invest in mentorship programs where students from underrepresented communities are made aware of healthcare courses and programs.
Inclusive workplace model adopted by organizations:
- Start hiring people from underrepresented communities for roles that do not require a professional degree (e.g., office staff).
- Introduce training programs and interventions that help individuals and companies to overcome unconscious biases or social stereotypes about certain groups of people in the society.
- Examine the existing policies (e.g., family leave, religious holidays) and ensure that they are accommodative of a diverse workforce.
- Create a special team in the organization that gives legal protection against discrimination.
- Set up mentorship or support groups to deal with stressful situations.
- Remove any pay disparity.
Despite previous efforts, inclusion of diversity has not yet yielded significant universal results. However, introduction and implementation of newer approaches from the level of pre-college and dental schools will help improve diversity at dental workplaces.
Author: Dr. Shilpy Bhandari is an experienced dental surgeon, with a specialization in periodontics and implantology. She received her graduate and postgraduate education from Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences in India. She is also interested in evidence-based academic writing and has published several articles in international journals.