Diversity in dentistry

June 8, 2004
How can dentists accommodate an increasingly diverse patient base?

Whether a practice is based in an urban or rural area, diversity is an issue that touches every aspect of health care, according to an article in the June 2004 issue of AGD Impact , the newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

In a country where minorities comprise more than 25 percent of the population (2002 Census), creating a diverse and comfortable office is vital to the success of today's dental practices.

"The more diverse the population looks, the more you're going to see different types of people in your practice," says Eric Curtis, DDS, MAGD. "And the more your practice looks different, the more you're going to have to be responsive to those people."

One of the ways a practice can accommodate a diverse patient base is by employing bilingual workers.

"In my area, close to the Mexican border, the ethnicity has not shifted, but it has intensified," says Dr. Curtis, who is fluent in Spanish. "I've always tried to keep one Spanish-speaking staff member. Having someone who isn't the dentist be able to answer the phone and offer assistance in a patient's most comfortable language is very reassuring to people who aren't fluent in English."

Taking the time to have a diverse practice is not only important, it is also one of the easiest things a dentist can do to ensure success.

"Have people of diverse backgrounds work in the practice and work there not because they're a minority but because they're the best qualified," says Myrna Marofsky, president and co-owner of ProGroup, a consulting firm that provides diversity solutions for businesses.

Dr. Curtis also recommends that dentists allow parents or relatives of patients that don't speak English into the room during treatment. This way the relative can act as a translator and at the same time offer reassurance to the patient, especially in the case of a child.

In Baltimore, Donna Mason, DDS, sees dozens of patients every week who either speak no English or very little. In many cases, these are patients that have just arrived in the United States. Like Dr. Curtis, she also speaks Spanish.

"Because we have such a large Spanish-speaking base, our pamphlets and instruction books are in both English and Spanish," she said. "I started practicing in 1985 and I didn't have the diversity I'm seeing now, particularly in Latino and Hispanic patients. I had never encountered Spanish-speaking patients before."

The growing number of Spanish-speaking patients has prompted the Maryland Academy of General Dentistry to launch a Spanish for Dentists program, which operates in conjunction with most of the state's community colleges. Already plans are in place to expand the program.

"It's been tremendously well-received," says Al Bedell, Ph.D. and executive secretary for the MAGD. "It's really making inroads for the dentists who see Hispanic patients. What can I say, we have the governor (Robert Ehrlich, Jr.) giving full support to the project."