Diversity training in the dental office: why you need to know

Dec. 27, 2011

By Michelle Feierabend-Parish

Oftentimes we need to address how we can improve customer service in a dental practice. The main issues are discussed, such as answering phones, offering promotions, adding special services, and marketing strategies. Most likely, the topic of diversity training is never brought up. In the medical field, especially hospitals and larger clinics, diversity training is a necessity, but it is rarely done in dental practices. So, why is diversity training important? For one thing, it is a key factor in having superior customer service skills. Having a team that respects and understands patients’ needs makes for a more successful practice. Although diversity training is a huge part of patient relations, it is also important for employee relations for members of the team who may be of different race, religion, culture, or sexual orientation.

The mention of diversity training is often met with eyes rolling, sighs, and general disdain. It has the reputation of being just about race, and many times it is viewed as being boring and a waste of time. In reality, diversity training is not just about race. Culture, religion, and sexual orientation also play significant roles in diversity training. Broadening the training to include all these different areas of diversity makes it much more interesting to the audience. Diversity training’s main goal is to take what is unknown and make it relatable to people who may be out of their comfort zones when dealing with those who have different views and lifestyles.

Language and Communication
Language and communication barriers are the biggest issue when dealing with patients from different cultures. Many times a demographic study of an area can help you be proactive when hiring new team members. If a practice is in a community where there is a huge Hispanic population, you may want to consider having some team members who speak Spanish. Having pamphlets and brochures printed in Spanish may also better assist your patients in making decisions regarding their treatment. Communication barriers also become an issue when you have patients with heavy accents or when English is a second language for them. When conversing with these patients, it is important to remain calm and refrain from speaking too loudly to them.

Culture and Religion
Culture and religion can be very sensitive topics for some people. Since 9/11 there has been a very poor attitude toward Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent. Many of these attitudes stem from stereotypes that lead to discrimination. Some people assume that all Middle Easterners are Muslim and may treat them coldly without understating the Islamic faith. They may also be unaware that other religions exist in the Middle East. Culture and religion also play a huge role in how some patients proceed with medical and dental care decisions. Training can help your team understand how and why religion and culture can sometimes be a deciding factor in regard to treatment.

Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation can be an uncomfortable topic for many people. We live in a world that includes same-sex marriages and people who are transgender. These are topics we hear about every day in the news. They are also topics that some people have very strong views on and have a hard time understanding, relating to, and accepting. A personal experience occurred in an office I worked in as a financial coordinator. A father became a woman over a period of a few years. I saw how she was treated differently by the office, but I never personally treated her any different than other parents that walked through the door. In our society, it is also not uncommon to treat children who have same-sex parents and patients who have same-sex partners, as well.

The fear of the unknown oftentimes causes people to shut down and come across as being rude and unprofessional. When working in the health-care field, you do not have the luxury of picking and choosing who you want to treat or who you are going to be nice to on a particular day. Diversity training is all about taking these unknowns and helping people gain a better understanding of the unknown. It is not about making people change their views, but instead helping them adapt when dealing with differences, and respecting differences and treating people equally.

Michelle Feierabend-Parish has been in the dental field for more than 20 years. She started out as an orthodontic assistant, then worked in management at a corporate dental company overseeing multiple offices. Over the past five years, she has been employed at Cuyahoga Community Corporate College in Cleveland, Ohio, as an instructor for their dental management program, a program which she helped develop. In December 2011, Michelle accepted a position as an instructor with the Warschaw Institute of Learning and Dental Management Club. She has also taught and developed courses in diversity and customer service. Michelle has worked as an independent consultant for private dental offices assisting dentists with accounts receivable and administrative training. Michelle majored in cultural anthropology at the University of Akron and values the importance of diversity and customer service training, enabling her to combine her education and work experience to educate others. She can be contacted by e-mail by clicking here.