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Building a Diverse Dental Workforce

An RWJF Collection

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Growing a New Class of Oral Health Care Professionals in the Motor City

RWJF supports local initiatives to prime the diversity pipeline.

    • October 2, 2013

Deirdre Young, DDS, is passionate about her work. She visits a different Detroit middle or high school weekly to share her enthusiasm and gather new recruits, with the focus and intensity of a devout missionary or an ambitious saleswoman. The only difference is she’s selling dentistry as a career.

Young is director of multicultural affairs at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) School of Dentistry, one of the state’s two dental schools (the University of Michigan is the other). In that role, she’s director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)-funded Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute (NLI) program at UDM. Concerned about Detroit’s shortage of dental professionals, she developed the Dental Imprint pipeline program in 2009 to address the problem. The program launched with four Detroit schools, and it now boasts a roster of 10 public, charter, and private schools. Approximately 200 students from underserved communities participate each year. Science teachers and counselors recommend students ages 12 to 18 who excel in science or have an interest in the health professions. More than 600 students have participated since the program’s start.

“I felt it was important to establish a pipeline program to expose Detroit-area students to health care—specifically dentistry,” Young says. “There are not enough minorities in health care.”

She points out that the disparity is particularly striking in Detroit where the population is 82 percent Black. According to the American Dental Association, less than 4 percent of dentists in the United States are African American. “The percentages should be more reflective of our citizenry,” Young adds. 

The need is acute. Detroit has already been designated a dental health professional shortage area by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. The city’s economic plight is so dire that a state-appointed emergency manager filed for bankruptcy to settle the city’s $18 billion debt. The ensuing plans to slash the pensions and health benefits of 30,000 city retirees threaten to widen the health care gap.

Imprint at Work

During the first of Dental Imprint’s two phases, Young visits the schools to talk to students about health professions, emphasizing the link between math and science proficiency and health careers. In the second phase, students visit UDM’s dental school for a full day of classes and activities. A dental team of dentists, hygienists, and surgeons share insights about their career paths. Students learn about cultural competence and how to communicate effectively with patients—how to talk to them about fears, anatomy, and oral health care.

Young says skillful communication makes patients feel comfortable and develops trust. “Trust goes both ways,” she explains. “They have to trust you are a competent provider who cares for them as a person.”

Students are especially excited by the program’s lab experience, Young says. Not only do they get to watch the dissection of a human cadaver, but a simulation lab also gives them a hands-on opportunity to make dental impressions and models that they can take home.

Dental Imprint operates each Wednesday from January through May, but Young’s commitment doesn’t take a vacation: during the summer months, she runs UDM’s dental Summer Enrichment Program for college students. The course has an online component for those who want to prepare for and test their skills on the Dental Application Test (DAT). Students can enroll in both summer enrichment and the online DAT course, or they can choose the DAT course only. Participants in the summer enrichment program must have completed two years of college, have an interest in dental school, and qualify as economically or educationally disadvantaged.

In addition, Young ran a three-day Dental Hygiene Exploration workshop at UDM last fall to introduce high school seniors, undergraduates, or people looking for a career change to the field of dental hygiene. The workshop offered dental hygiene and anatomy labs, admissions counseling, and networking and shadowing opportunities.

All of UDM’s pipeline programs got an immediate boost when the project was selected by the RWJF Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute as one of its projects in 2012. UDM partnered with the Michigan Area Health Education Center (MI-AHEC), where co-program director Ramona Benkert, PhD, ANP-BC, and her team Leon Hudson (project manager), Tracy Walker (information officer), and Linda Tarjeft (associate program director) quickly took on several of the operational responsibilities. The center deployed its resources to create marketing materials for the program, fliers, brochures, and even polo shirts for participants. It also opened an avenue to expanded recruitment by introducing Young to its network of MI-AHEC statewide partners and other school representatives. Last year’s program netted three new dental students, who entered the UDM dental college in September.

Benkert considers the NLI model of pairing dental colleges with community partners as central to the project’s success. “We have overlapping but different expertise. We’re able to do the registration, complete the evaluations, and write up the reports,” she says. “Young can talk about the clinical aspects. She knows what students need to get into dental school and what it takes to be a good dentist.”

For her part, Young has distilled her strategies for success into a sort of instructional haiku.

“First, make sure this is what you want to do. Shadow a dentist. Make it meaningful,” she says. “Take a pottery class to strengthen your hand-balance skills. Stay focused in science and math courses. Foundational skills will prepare you to be a successful dental student.”

She welcomes the chance to directly reach out to hundreds of students each year. “It’s rewarding,” she says. “I go home happy every day.”


Related Websites

Learn more about the RWJF Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit