By: Emily Yu, Founder and CEO, AI PRIORI, INC., and External Advisor, Delta Dental’s Driving Greater Diversity in the Oral Health Workforce Campaign
Over the past two decades, the American oral health system has made significant advancements when it comes to increased access, improved patient safety, and better care delivery that seeks to support better oral health for all. This is due in large part to the efforts of 750,000 oral health practitioners currently working in the U.S. alongside their colleagues in health care, public health, and insurance, who together, form a dynamic network that enables people to be healthy and thrive.
Yet challenges remain. Far too many people in the U.S. today, approximately 72 million, have either limited or no access to quality dental care — jeopardizing the nation’s collective health and well-being. To address this fundamental issue, many innovative leaders are focusing their efforts on cultivating, diversifying, and supporting the oral health workforce. Here we take a closer look at these three approaches and how organizations can apply them to strengthen their own efforts as well as the overall workforce.
Investing in the expansion and training of the oral health workforce is vital for protecting the health and well-being of people in America and around the world. Urgency surrounds this need in the U.S., as we face a critical shortage of oral health professionals across the country. For example, an estimated 12,288 dental practitioners are currently needed to fill the gaps in U.S. communities where professional dental care is in short supply.
Closing this gap will not be easy. In addition to needing to bring in new workforce members, there also exists a significant turnover rate across nearly all segments of the health care workforce. The Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), reflecting the broader public health workforce, reveals that approximately 32% of state and local public health employees are contemplating leaving their respective organizations within the next year. These figures underscore the significant challenges faced by the public health workforce writ large. While 5% plan to retire, 27% have other reasons for their potential departure. Contributing factors include stress (37%) and burnout (41%). Of those considering leaving, 39% attributed their decision to impacts from the pandemic.
Organizational tactics to consider: Enhancing incentivization and retention efforts to develop and keep oral health professionals is critical to ensuring the stability and continuity of the oral health workforce. Targeted efforts including supporting oral health professionals as a long-term commitment through robust compensation, benefits packages, and career advancement opportunities are essential.
There is also growing momentum globally for a more whole-body and community-based approach — one that integrates community members, businesses, and local government, into the co-design and implementation of oral health practices. By doing so, we can effectively complement traditional oral health efforts and ultimately transform oral health policies, practices, and the workforce to better meet the needs of the underserved.
In 2020, nearly 7 out of 10 dentists in the U.S. was White, with Black, Hispanic, and Native American dentists underrepresented in the field. Promoting racial and ethnic diversity in the oral health workforce is necessary to strengthen the overall field and improve oral health outcomes. It is well documented that the inclusion of professionals from historically underrepresented groups has been shown to effectively bridge existing gaps in oral health disparities by enhancing trust and rapport with patients. In addition, research shows that patients are more likely to seek dental care and follow treatment plans when they feel understood and culturally validated by their oral health providers leading to more effective and patient-centered care.
Diversity within the oral health workforce also brings a multitude of perspectives and experiences to the table. This focus on diversity can help organizations fuel innovation, encourage critical thinking, and foster collaboration among professionals. By drawing on diverse perspectives, the oral health workforce is better positioned to develop new strategies, approaches, and solutions to address complex oral health challenges.
Organizational tactics to consider: Invest in strategies designed to enable your team to identify and address imbalances within your own organization, your community, and the oral health workforce more broadly. Ensuring the development of a diverse workforce as an organizational priority could translate into funding scholarships, supporting mentorship programs, and creating community-centered outreach initiatives that can help create the foundation for systemic changes. Delta Dental’s Driving Greater Diversity in the Oral Health Workforce campaign is an example of a proactive approach that is already helping to support and strengthen a more diverse oral health workforce.
To ensure the longevity and effectiveness of the oral health workforce, our field must also invest in continuous training and professional development necessary to bolster its competence and adaptability. As emphasized in the American Medical Association's findings, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for a well-prepared and agile health care workforce. Providing ongoing training in new technologies, best practices, and patient-centered care will empower oral health professionals to stay at the forefront of the field and respond effectively to evolving healthcare challenges. Additionally, specialized training in cultural competence and communication skills can enhance patient interactions, leading to improved health outcomes and patient satisfaction.
Of particular concern is the need to address burnout among oral health professionals. The PH WINS report highlights that burnout is prevalent among public health workers more broadly due to the demanding nature of their profession, heavy workloads, and the emotional toll of patient care. The survey revealed that one in five national staff rate their mental health as either “poor” or “fair.”
Organizational tactics to consider: By implementing targeted support systems, such as counseling services, mental health resources, and flexible work arrangements, we can start to mitigate burnout's adverse effects. Reducing burnout not only preserves the well-being of oral health professionals but also ensures they can continue providing high-quality care to patients without compromising their health and job satisfaction. Moreover, creating a positive and supportive work environment that values work-life balance and acknowledges the contributions of oral health professionals can foster a sense of belonging and loyalty among the workforce.
Longer term, it is essential for policymakers, health care organizations, and educational institutions to collaborate in creating a supportive and inclusive environment that attracts, retains, and nurtures a diverse oral health workforce. By doing so, we can pave the way for a future where every American has access to the highest standard of oral healthcare.
Investments that encourage growth, diversification, and offer more support to the oral health workforce are critical to ensuring the field’s long-term sustainability and better oral health for all. By prioritizing the well-being and professional growth of oral health professionals, leaders across sectors can contribute to the establishment of a more resilient and skilled workforce that delivers not only excellent care but also meets the evolving needs of patients and their communities. Ultimately, such support will contribute to better health among individuals and communities, and a more robust and thriving oral health field.