Advancing diversity within the dental industry and addressing inequities in oral health

This article was originally published in The Suburban Times

What happens when a company creates a position solely dedicated to advancing workforce diversity within an entire profession? For the answer, look no further than Delta Dental of Washington which did just that when it promoted Lolinda Turner to help address the lack of diverse representation among dental professionals and inequities in dental care statewide.

Turner, a Spanaway resident, has focused her entire career on oral health including roles as a dental office manager, registered dental assistant, and dental assistant instructor. While in these roles, Turner – who is Black – noticed something: not a lot of dental professionals looked like her.

“The ability to receive dental care by a dental professional who looks like them and is from the same community increases treatment acceptance percentages,” said Turner. “The ability to work alongside dental professionals from the same community also helps to reduce racism, inequity, and discrimination.”

Currently, only 3.7 percent of dentists are Black, 4.2 percent are Hispanic, and 11.8 percent are Asian nationally – and the frequency of dental visits among the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community is significantly less than in white communities. The lack of dental visits by the BIPOC community contributes to disproportionate tooth loss, periodontal disease, and tooth decay. Oral cancer is also caught later among Black men leading to lower survival rates.

As a non-profit mission-driven organization, Delta Dental of Washington was looking to expand diversity at all levels within the dental profession, and last year appointed Turner to lead efforts toward a more inclusive industry by fostering learning, cultivating relationships within diverse communities, and increasing support for diversity among current and future dental professionals.

These steps are being taken in response to the disproportionate levels of diversity within the dental industry – and to start to address deeply rooted trust issues within many historically underserved communities.

Turner has a plan to address these disparities, and she is tackling them from every side. As dental workforce diversity and inclusion program manager, Turner coordinates listening sessions to seek deeper understanding, works with women’s shelters and non-profit educational programs, and helps to expand dental program reach.

She has also discussed issues within the industry among Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+ dental professionals with plans to meet with other diverse communities in the future, all in a quest to incorporate their issues, concerns, and ideas into pathways for growing diversity within the profession.

To effectively address the racial inequities of dental care and increase the diversity of dentists, assistants, hygienists, and office staff, Turner is focused on identifying ways to introduce youth to dental careers – like her work with the Bethel School District Continuing Education Advisory Board and Spokane School District, recommending a new ‘Introduction to Dentistry’ program.

As with any profession, workplace, or academic environment, it is critical for dental and vocational schools to mirror their community’s values and diversity – including faculty and administrators who reflect the students they serve, and who have firsthand experience of their students' struggles.

“In many underserved communities, dentistry is not viewed as a career option. The importance of dentistry has been hidden and overlooked along with other types of health care. While many of our BIPOC youth may be interested in dentistry, they do not see others who represent them, so they don’t pursue it. By making connections and creating mentorships between our youth and current BIPOC dental professionals, the students feel supported and pointed in the right direction. By working together as one and helping our youth find financial resources, scholarships, and mentorships, we can all do our part to improve our oral and overall health, added Turner. “The work I am doing on behalf of Delta Dental of Washington and in partnership with Arcora Foundation to promote diversity in dentistry, has become a personal passion that I did not know existed.”

Diane Oakes, chief mission officer for Delta Dental of Washington, works closely with Turner. “To be truly successful in growing diversity within the dental field, our efforts must be led by people who are from the same backgrounds and share similar experiences with those we’re trying to reach. Delta Dental is fortunate that Lolinda accepted this challenging role. She brings a perspective that is highly valuable and unstoppable energy.”

Less than a year into her role, Turner has transformed the outlook on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the dental profession – and the future for her role is a busy one connecting with school districts and non-profits which want to be part of the good fight.

“Delta Dental is working hard to bring inclusion to all areas of dentistry and change forms, policies, and procedures across the state, so that racism, discrimination, and inequity have no place in dentistry. The more diversity and inclusion there is in dentistry the more our fellow neighbors, family, and friends will have improved oral health and better overall health,” says Turner. “During the past nine months, I have seen that more people are supportive of this work than those who are not. I want to thank them because what I thought was going to be just a job, has become a full-blown passion, and has pushed me to work that much harder.”

With Turner’s efforts and the backing of Delta Dental of Washington, she is making waves in the dental industry, and she doesn’t plan to stop until there is a more diversified dental workforce and the BIPOC community is cared for equitably.