The traditional path to becoming a dental professional has often been limited to a narrow demographic. However, to truly address the oral health disparities in underserved communities, we must challenge this status quo and actively seek to diversify our dental workforce. By doing so, we can ensure that our dental workforce is reflective of the diverse populations we aim to serve. But where will these much-needed practitioners come from? I strongly believe that the solution to this pressing issue lies in mentorship and collaboration.
Encouraging Mentorship Programs
Many dental professionals will attest that a mentor inspired them to enter the profession. Being a mentor is about more than sharing a passion for the industry; it is an opportunity to provide academic guidance, emotional support and encouragement, shadowing experiences, and influence one’s social capital to facilitate his or her successful admission to and completion of dental school and to enter the dental workforce. This is vital for those from historically underrepresented groups who have limited access to professional and academic role models. Mentorship plays a pivotal role in shaping the perspectives and aspirations of young dental professionals. Programs like Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, Inc, connect established practitioners with students from diverse backgrounds to go beyond the technical aspects of dentistry to instill confidence, ignite passion, and foster personal growth from middle school to dental school. Mentors have the power to shape the future of their mentees and the dental profession.
Collaboration With Community and Educational Institutions
To understand the unique needs of underserved communities and inspire promising young individuals from historically underrepresented groups to pursue dentistry as a career, we must intentionally tap into these communities themselves. Cultivating a diverse cohort of dental practitioners in dental schools can be achieved with comprehensive mentorship and education through pathway and enrichment programs sponsored by dental institutions and other educational institutions, such as the University of Missouri-Kansas City Summer Collegiate and DAT Prep Program—Students Training in Academia, Health, and Research (STAHR)—and the Summer Health Professional Education Program (SHPEP). By providing guidance and financial support to these aspiring dental professionals, we can empower them to serve their own communities, bridging the gap between oral healthcare providers and patients.
Are the Current Dental Professionals a Real Representation of Our Culture?
There is a problem that people are overlooking. The racial diversity of the dental workforce does not reflect that of the nation. According to the ADA, data from the Health Policy Institute finds that Black and Hispanic dentists are significantly underrepresented in the profession. In 2020, the report stated that approximately 70.2% of dentists in the United States were White, while only around 5.9% were Hispanic or Latino; 3.8% were Black or African American; and less than 2.2% represented other racial groups, including American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Pacific Islanders. In contrast, the US Census Bureau estimated that in 2020, the overall US population was around 60.1% White, 18.4% Hispanic or Latino, 12.4% Black or African American, and 3.6% other racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, the report revealed there has been a flat growth of Black dentists in the last 15 years.
How Can We Encourage the Youth to Look at This Profession?
In 2022, our manuscript, “Dental School Pathway Programs: Best Practices for Increasing Workforce Diversity,” was published in the Journal of Dental Education. The co-authors and I identified pathway programs as one of the best practices for increasing the enrollment of historically underrepresented racial and marginalized (HURM) students in dental schools and enhancing their entry into the dental workforce. Many of these programs target middle and high schools that provide academic support, mentoring, enrichment experiences, and other resources.
According to the American Dental Education Association’s 2020 Survey, less than half of the graduating Class of 2020 responded that the choice to pursue dentistry was made before entering college rather than while in college. For HURM respondents, an impressive 51% made this decision before college, surpassing the overall response group. These figures demonstrate the impact of early exposure and guidance in fostering career aspirations among underrepresented students.
Here are some strategies we can use to excite students about the profession as early as primary school:
- Primary school: Getting primary school students excited about careers in dentistry can be a fun and engaging process. Organize activities where students can learn, dream, and play as dental professionals with props like toothbrushes, mirrors, and models. Take field trips to dental clinics or host a dental professional to talk about oral hygiene, nutrition, and the science of dentistry for kids.
- Middle school: Engaging middle school students can be challenging, but it is essential to provide a learning environment that will stimulate their curiosity and passion for learning.
Community outreach events like the Diversify Dentistry Youth Summit can provide interactive, hands-on activities like impressions and handling different dental materials. Field trips to dental schools allow them to be inspired by dental students. Teachers can also incorporate oral health sciences in the STEM curriculum.
- High school: Engaging high school students in dentistry careers requires a more in-depth approach, as they are at an age where they are considering their future paths. Ask your patients if they have considered dentistry and invite them to shadow you for a day. They can seek mentorship programs that will provide insight on preparing for college admissions exams, what courses to take, and what types of leadership and volunteer opportunities will help them succeed in college and strengthen their portfolios when applying for dental school.
What Are Some Action Steps That Mentors Can Use to Connect With Their Mentees?
Mentorship is a transformative relationship that can significantly impact individuals’ personal and professional growth. For dental mentors, building meaningful connections with their mentees is crucial in fostering a supportive and nurturing environment, especially if they do not share their ethnic or cultural backgrounds. By incorporating effective action steps, mentors can create an inclusive and empowering mentorship experience. Let’s explore 5 key strategies dental mentors can implement to connect with their mentees and guide them on their journeys of growth and achieving their dental aspirations.
1. Communication—the foundation of connection:
Effective communication is the bedrock of any successful mentorship. Mentors should actively listen and engage with their mentees, seeking to understand their aspirations, challenges, and unique perspectives. By genuinely getting to know their mentees and meeting them where they are, mentors can establish a foundation of trust and open dialogue, creating an environment where mentees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and seeking guidance.
2. Commitment—dedication to growth:
A mentor’s commitment is essential to a fruitful mentorship. This involves coordinating schedules to accommodate mentees’ needs, setting up recurring meetings, or employing scheduling apps to ensure regular and consistent engagement. By dedicating time and effort, mentors demonstrate their genuine investment in their mentees’ growth and development.
3. Courage—self-reflection and cultural proficiency:
To be effective mentors, individuals must demonstrate courage by engaging in self-reflection and becoming culturally proficient. Acknowledging and addressing personal biases and potential microaggressions is crucial in creating an inclusive and supportive mentorship space. Being intentional in fostering cultural awareness can promote understanding and empathy, enriching the mentor-mentee relationship.
4. Challenge—empowering through stretch goals:
A mentor’s role extends beyond offering guidance; they should also challenge their mentees to set stretch goals. Encouraging mentees to aim high and providing the necessary support can drive personal and professional growth. Defining what a stretch goal is and guiding mentees on how to stretch their capabilities will instill a sense of purpose and drive to achieve their aspirations.
5. Celebrate—acknowledging progress and success:
Celebrating progress throughout the mentorship journey is pivotal in boosting mentees’ confidence and morale. By recognizing achievements along the way, mentors help mentees combat the imposter phenomenon and reaffirm their worth. This is especially critical for Black, Latin American, and Indigenous American students, as it validates their accomplishments, fosters a sense of belonging, and ensures they feel seen and heard.
What Has Been Done, and What Can We Do Going Forward?
Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, Inc, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is steadfast in its mission to bolster the diversity pathway from middle school to dental school. Through mentoring, educational initiatives, hands-on programming, and scholarships, the organization supports youth and pre-dental students from African American/Black, Latin American, and Native American backgrounds. By offering these opportunities, the mentorship program serves as a vital catalyst in promoting the dental profession and fostering diversity within the dental workforce. By supporting organizations like Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, we can actively contribute to the creation of a more inclusive and diverse dental workforce. Ensuring that all communities have equitable access to oral health care is paramount to improving oral health outcomes nationwide. To learn more about the programs offered through Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships and join their network of dental mentors and mentees, visit the website diversityindentistry.org. You can also engage with the community on Facebook and Instagram at the handle @diversityindentistry. For a glimpse of the Inaugural Youth Summit’s highlights and educational webinars, visit their YouTube channel. Together, we can break down barriers and empower the next generation of diverse dental professionals to serve all communities and improve health outcomes for everyone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Hishaw is a compassionate caregiver and mentor. She’s a board-certified pediatric dentist, renowned speaker, author, and thought leader in the dental profession. She is a champion for mentorship, health equity, and belonging in her field. As the founder of Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, Inc, a nonprofit organization, she is dedicated to empowering underrepresented youth and pre-dental students through mentoring and educational programs. Dr. Hishaw is the founding partner of Tucson Smiles Pediatric Dentistry in Tucson, Ariz, and has received numerous accolades for her work, including authoring the Amazon bestseller Cavity Free Kids: How to Care for Your Kids’ Teeth From Birth Through Their Teenage Years. Through her lectures, workshops, and executive leadership consulting, she is on a mission to elevate dentistry, promote inclusion strategies, and inspire hope in others. Learn more at drlailahishaw.com.
Disclosure: Dr. Hishaw reports no disclosures.