While the United States has overall vastly improved its oral health care in the last half-century, these are health advancements not all Americans have benefitted from or receive equal access to — and some racial groups have even seen oral health care worsen due to surrounding living and working conditions. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as American Indians and Alaska Natives, generally have the poorest oral health of any racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
Latisha Canty is the President of the National Dentist Hygienists’ Association (NDHA) and has said that these racial groups often live in low-income communities and cannot afford optimum health and dental care.
“Trust is also involved,” Canty said. “Many minority populations have experienced hardships at the hands of health care professionals in the past and do not trust individuals that they can’t identify with.”
Getting to Know the National Dental Hygienists’ Association
The NDHA was founded in 1932 by African American dental hygienists to bring together the limited number of minority dental practitioners in the U.S. and address the specialized challenges they face.
Canty was first introduced to the organization when her dental office attended the 2010 National Dental Association (NDA)/NDHA convention in Hawaii.
“It was a very empowering experience because I had never seen such a large group of African American dental hygienists in one place,” recalled Canty. “I met women that looked like me – who became my mentors, my sisters, and my friends.”
That type of experience can open a person’s mind to recognize a vast array of issues that greatly affect one subset of the population while being almost unnoticed by others. It’s that moment of recognition that motivates many, like Canty, to completely change their path and their purpose in life.
Shining a Light on National Dental Health Care Disparities
While dental health care disparities across the nation have not gone completely unnoticed, they remain woefully low-priority in discussions surrounding health care — a policy issue that has been front-and-center for well beyond the last decade.
Medicaid offers dental benefits for children, and the improved Affordable Care Act can provide individuals with affordable health and dental care through the healthcare marketplace. Despite this, other efforts to improve the dental health care situation for millions of people — specifically black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) — and thousands of local communities has often stalled in the face of opposition. According to Canty, the Biden Administration and congressional supporters of the issue previously tried to include Medicare dental benefits in the Build Back Better Act, but it didn’t make the final cut.
“As a society we must work toward changing U.S. laws to provide equal access to oral health care across all minorities,” expressed Canty. “Including dental benefits in Medicare is one step in the right direction.”
Through community service and outreach projects, such as assisting schools, churches and homeless shelters, the NDHA helps promote access to oral care for under-served communities. The organization also provides several education scholarships to African American dental hygiene students in hopes of encouraging an increase in the number of minority dental professionals.
“It’s important to have more BIPOC individuals in the medical field to provide a sense of comfort to patients who may look the same as them,” said Canty. “The more patients can see someone they recognize in that caretaking role, the more they will trust the type of care they are getting and return for future care throughout their life.”
Encouraging the Next Generation of Dental Professionals
Through support and opportunities from Concorde Career Colleges, Inc., efforts are being made to address the shortage in oral care by offering a dental hygiene program at 11 of its campuses and online.
Students of Concorde’s dental hygiene programs have the opportunity to receive hands-on training d while providing low-cost patient care (under the supervision of licensed dental professionals) in campus dental clinics to area residents who don’t have the insurance and / or the sufficient income to pay for most dental services, including cleanings, X-rays, bite guards, bleaching trays and dental sealants.
“Programs like those offered at Concorde Career Colleges are important because they provide education to individuals who may be interested in health and dental care, but feel like they don’t have the resources to pursue that passion,” said Canty. “These programs give people opportunities that they may not have otherwise, and if this pandemic has proved anything, it’s proven the need for more health care providers in this country.”