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Diversifying Dentistry

by Colleen O'Dea

"The need for dentists from minority groups is very strong," according to a statement from the ADA. "Career opportunities for women in dentistry are also particularly good at this time."

Little more than a year after graduating from the New Jersey Dental School, Dr. Asim Zaidi ('97) had to hire another dentist to help ease the workload in his burgeoning Piscataway, N.J., practice, Dental Associates. The Pakistani American, who hired a Spanish-speaking dentist, said there is a significant increase in minority patients.

"It's going incredibly well. We've doubled our patient base in the last four months," said Dr. Zaidi, who bought the established practice 11 months ago. "We didn't really do any marketing targeting any specific minorities, but a lot of them are coming in."

Dr. Zaidi is one of the new faces of dentistry, and NJDS has been helping change the face of the profession from one dominated by white males to one that increasingly is becoming more reflective of the nation's diversity. As recently as the mid-1980s, more than three-quarters of the nation's dental school graduates were white males. But in 1997, one-third of graduating dentists were African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, or Native American. Even more - 36.4 percent - were women.

For the past five years, minorities have comprised about a third of enrollment at NJDS, according to Dr. Zia Shey ('73), associate dean for Student Affairs and Graduate Dental Education. In the 1998-99 academic year, just over half the students are women, making them the majority. "That could be a landmark," says Dr. Shey.

NJDS's female enrollment is far above the national average for 1996-97, the most recent year for which statistics were available from the American Dental Association. While its total minority enrollment is on a par with national averages, the ratio of African Americans and Hispanic Americans puts NJDS near the top of the nation's 54 dental schools.

According to the ADA, African Americans comprised 10 percent of NJDS's total enrollment in 1996-97. That ranked NJDS fourth behind the predominantly African-American Howard University in Washington, D.C., Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, and the University of Maryland. Some 7 percent of NJDS students that year were Hispanic American. In just six other schools, including the University of Puerto Rico, were greater proportions of the student body Hispanic, the ADA figures show.

NJDS has come far in just 20 years. Dr. George McLaughlin ('75), who practices in New Brunswick, N.J., said his class was the first in the school's history to admit more than one African American - it had 8 or 9.

"Prior to my graduating class, there had only been three blacks graduating from the school in total," says Dr. McLaughlin, clinical associate professor of General and Hospital Dentistry. "Today it's much higher than when I started school." Still, he notes, while most NJDS classes have more than 30 percent minority students, only about 20 percent or fewer are what the U.S. Public Health Service considers "under-represented minorities" - Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans.

From 1986-87 to 1996-97, the percentage of dental school graduates nationally who are female or minority rose, while the percentage of white male graduates declined, according to ADA statistics. Women graduates rose more than 14 percentage points, while Asian-American dental grads increased nearly 11 points and African-American graduates rose 1.5 percentage points. While Hispanic-American dental school graduates rose by a little more than one percentage point, the 5.5 percent of all graduates who were Hispanic in 1996-97 actually dropped from a high of 8.7 percent in 1991-92.

"The need for dentists from minority groups is very strong," according to a statement from the ADA. "Career opportunities for women in dentistry are also particularly good at this time. The ADA, along with the dental schools, is always working to attract more students, especially minorities and women, to consider dentistry as a profession."

One reason why minorities were underrepresented in dental schools 20 years ago is "there was just not much effort made to attract blacks and women, too, to dentistry," says Dr. McLaughlin.
Today, NJDS actively recruits minorities, said Dr. Shey. The admissions committee contains African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and women, and that helps in attracting more minorities and women to the school, he said. There's a more diverse population from which to recruit students, also. New Jersey's minority population has risen - more than a quarter of the state's residents are African American, Hispanic American, or Asian American, according to the 1990 Census - and this year, 90 percent of NJDS students are from in-state.

Once the students are enrolled, NJDS has a solid support system in place to help them graduate."The students feel they are part of us, they feel they are part of the educational process, and they are supported in this way," said Dr. Shey.

NJDS also has chapters of the Student Hispanic Dental Association and the Student National Dental Association for African-American students. "They are organized and they supply support to one another," said Dr. Shey.

The Hispanic Dental Association, based in Chicago, believes it is crucial to attract more Hispanics into the profession because the nation's Hispanic population is expected to keep growing into the 21st Century. The association provides support to Hispanic dentists and tries to encourage more Hispanics to join the profession by administering five scholarships.

"Studies show that in some places, Hispanics tend to use other Hispanic-owned businesses," said Sandy Reed, executive director of the association. "If they don't have a Hispanic-speaking dentist, they may not go in at all. In order for us to promote better oral hygiene for Hispanics, we have to get more Hispanics into the profession."

Dr. Zaidi has seen first hand how relating to minorities can bring them to the dentist's chair. "As America has changed, so has the profile of dentistry," he says.

 

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