Shortage of Black dentists means more than just fewer smiles

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Apr 19, 2013 - 9:39:20 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

WASHINGTON ( - When it comes to health care, your dentist may be the last person you think about, if you think about her at all. But the profession has alarmingly low numbers of Blacks entering dental school.

“We need more Black dentists,” said Dr. Jeanne Sinkford, associate executive director of the American Dental Education Association. “Dental schools are only graduating 300 Black dentists out of 5,000 each year.”

Dr. Sinkford delivered remarks at the Howard University Symposium on United States Health Care April 10.

“There are only 65 dental schools and they are a safety net for communities without access to dental care.  Most patients we see in dental schools come from underserved communities but some states don’t have dental schools,” she explained.

“We have to understand the importance of Howard University Dental School and Meharry Dental School.  Thirty-one percent of African American dentists come from Howard and Meharry. Black dentists treat 61.8 percent of Black patients, White dentists only treat 10.5 percent, Hispanics treat 9.8 and Asian dentists only treat 11.5 percent.”

The need for more Blacks in health professions has reached critical levels.  Four new medical schools opened in 2009 in response to the call for an expanded physician workforce. 

But, “of the four new medical schools that opened only four African American students were admitted,” said Dr. Marc Nivet of the Association of American Medical Colleges.  “These are urgent issues that we face. We must hold institutions accountable for finding the talent available.”

The challenge to recruit dental students is even more critical.  Studies show that 50 million Americans live in areas where they can’t easily visit a dentist.

“We now have an opportunity (with the Affordable Care Act ACA) to improve access to dental health services,” said former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher at a conference last year. “But how do we put in place a health care system that meets the needs of all? Can we, in fact, increase the supply of oral health care providers by expanding the opportunity for people to serve? What the ACA said is that people should be able to practice to the full extent of their potential.”

“We now have an opportunity to dramatically increase coverage,” Dr. Satcher said. “But adding dental benefits will not translate into access to care if we do not have providers in place to offer treatment.”

Dr. Satcher expressed concern about the ability of the current dental workforce to meet demand. As part of provisions enacted under the Affordable Care Act, more than 5 million additional children will be entitled to dental health benefits.

There are not enough providers to meet the need. Currently, just 20 percent of all practicing dentists accept Medicaid patients. In addition, the federal Health Resources Services Administration estimates a current shortage of approximately 10,000 dentists.

Dr. Laura Muhammad graduated from Howard University Dental School.  She serves patients in the D.C. Metro area. “The appearance of dentistry is not that attractive.  People rarely want to get into a profession that hurts people and that’s what many people associate with dentistry.  They see it as a stress filled profession and we have to please people.  It’s very difficult at the end of the day,” she said.

“But it’s also very rewarding at the end of the day. We help people and are often the first ones to inform them of other health issues. Lack of oral care has an effect on heart disease and diabetes. The stuff between your gum line is an infection. Your body doesn’t do well fighting an infection. Bleeding gums and pusy infections can cause blood clots.”

Lauren Gordon is from Atlanta and enthusiastic about being a student at Howard University Dental School.  She’s excited about entering a profession that is so critical to overall health.

“I see how important oral health care is and how people overlook it,” she told The Final Call. “I had a lot of dental problems and I saw how oral health is connected to overall health. Teeth are a source of pride or embarrassment. Clean teeth and bad breath can affect a person’s self-confidence. I want to help people. With dentistry unlike other medical professions you can have patients for life. I want that.”