Expanding Diversity in the Oral Health Workforce

May 17, 2013, 11:00 AM, Posted by


Words Matter


The words we use matter. That’s why the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) is shifting the conversation away from the “deficit model” for recruiting students from underserved backgrounds.  ADEA is specifically avoiding language that suggests “the numbers just aren’t there” or “the pool is not qualified.” When we describe underserved students as low-income or less prepared educationally, it suggests that the problem lies with them. It undervalues the students and ignores the wealth that they bring to the table in terms of cultural competence, initiative, and willingness to provide care to communities that need it most. But far worse, the deficit model allows the real institutional obstacles that these students face to remain in place.

Untapped Talent

Some of the complaints about low numbers of qualified applicants are overstated. In reality, there is a large pool of qualified and talented students of diverse backgrounds who have not been recruited by dental schools or made aware of career opportunities in dentistry. Approximately 12, 500 students from underserved backgrounds graduate from college each year with degrees in the biological sciences and a 3.00 GPA. In 2009, only 5 percent or 594 students from that pool enrolled in dental school. Dental schools must create new tools and strategies to attract these students.

Market research on perceptions about careers in dentistry have revealed that early and frequent exposure to dentistry and dentists is essential in motivating minority students to choose dentistry as a profession. But many of the college students surveyed also said that poor advising received at the pre-dental level did not properly prepare them to apply to dental school.  Summer enrichment programs and formal partnerships with undergraduate advisors can bolster successful application rates.

Another way to increase acceptance rates is through the revised pre-doctoral accreditation standards that go into effect in July 2013.  Dental schools will have to implement “policies and practices to: achieve appropriate levels of diversity among its students, faculty, and staff and to engage in ongoing systematic and focused efforts to attract and retain students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds.” Admissions practices that have already proven successful such as whole file review (which takes into consideration a host of cognitive and non-cognitive variables), will be a valuable tool for schools.

Creating an oral health care workforce that truly reflects our nation will take time. Summer enrichment programs, mentoring, and pre-application counseling are current successes that we can build upon. Coupled with early and frequent exposure to dentistry and dentists, and incorporating whole file review, these elements can move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.