Monthly Archives: February 2015

African American Oral Health Remains a Black Spot on Dentistry Despite Gains Among Certain Groups

by Implantadmin Posted on February 25, 2015

Very often numbers help tell a story. Encouragingly, if you’re an African American living in 2015 many of those numbers paint an improving picture.

In 1970 there were only 1,469 black elected officials; today there are over 10,000. In 1966 the Black poverty rate was 41.8%. Today that figure is down by nearly half. In 1964 only 365,000 black Americans held a four year undergraduate degree. A half century later and that number stands at 2.6 million, a 612 percent increase.

No doubt, these are important numbers to champion. But as we celebrate the 45th annual Black History Month this February (39 if you’re counting from the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 when congress officially recognized the observance) there are plenty of numbers regarding a host of issues that suggest far more improvement is needed.

One of those issues concerns African Americans and their oral health. Studies repeatedly show that African Americans do not visit the dentist as frequently as their white counterparts and for those that do go, often their level of treatment is inferior. Reasons for the disparity hinge less along overtly racist attitudes and more on economic differences. According to a Columbia University study, 75% of adults surveyed had at least some dental insurance coverage. But of those respondents, 50% obtained that coverage through Medicaid versus 21% who had dental coverage from private insurance carriers. Of the 25% who had no insurance, the high cost of care was most often cited as the reason for not visiting the dentist.

Something to Smile About

But there’s also good news. Another study published in the journal Pediatrics found that black and white children visit the dentist at about the same rates and what was once a wide racial gap is now statistically insignificant.  Considering the degree to which oral health is increasingly correlated to a person’s overall health, this changing trend is one to applaud. In the mid 1960s about 60% of African American children had never been to the dentist versus 30% for white children. Today about 22% of white and black children in the U.S. haven’t visited the dentist in the last year. Eleven percent has never gone.

While African American children cavity rates remain higher than whites (possibly linked to increased poverty rates and limited access to healthier, low-sugar foods) clearly the narrowing dental divide is a welcome sign. The question is, what else can dentists do to help keep these trends moving in the right direction?

As we conclude our recognition of Black History Month this weekend, it’s important to remember that the month-long holiday isn’t just about celebrating the past, but about transforming the present, making for a better tomorrow. Dentists have long held positions of respect and authority in their communities. This February (and in all months) let’s strive to attract, retain and engage a new generation of African Americans young and old alike and encourage them to visit the dentist.

For too many African Americans, the American dream of college education, vibrant careers, and home ownership remains at best an elusive vision and at worst, a cruel tease. But a healthy mouth and vigorous smile can go a long way in boosting self esteem and professional confidence, opening career doors that may have otherwise been shut. African American oral health remains a black spot on the dental profession. But with dedicated outreach, effective marketing and flexible payment plans, that blemish can be eliminated.

From Trade to Profession: How African Americans Helped Transform Dentistry

by Implantadmin Posted on

By most accounts, the history of black and white dentistry crosses in the late 19th century. And appropriately, even at that early juncture there were more similarities than differences –starting with the fact that no matter which race was performing the work, it was an extremely painful (and primitive) experience.

In lieu of formal training dentists learned their trade by way of apprenticeship, (like barbers and blacksmiths) and gradually gained enough hands-on skills to open their own practices. But without standardization, without textbooks and without generalized theories on treating oral disease or maintaining oral health, standards were unreliable.

“When teeth became touched with decay or were otherwise ailing, the doctor knew of but one thing to do – he fetched his tongs and dragged them out. If the jaw remained, it was not his fault,” joked Mark Twain in his autobiography, Who is Mark Twain?, reflecting a common sentiment of the time.

Eventually these stereotypes came under fire as the number of apprenticed dentists grew, but word also spread of their botched care. The dental community recognized these shortcomings and began to make changes. In 1839 the first dental journal was published, the American Journal of Dental Science, and in 1840 the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery welcomed its first class. Fours year later American dentist Horace Wells began using nitrous oxide to anesthetize his patients, significantly reducing their level of pain during operations.

 The Road to Race Recovery

By the 1860s, dentistry was rapidly transforming in technological and cultural ways, and in 1867, the newly created Harvard Dental School, part of Harvard University, accepted its inaugural students. Among those 16 students was 21-year-old Robert Tanner Freeman, the son of former slaves.

According to historical accounts, Freeman, of Washington D.C., was long interested in dentistry and began learning his trade from Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, his white friend and mentor, who was also friends with Harvard Dental School’s first dean, Dr. Nathan C. Keep. Dr. Noble owned a dental practice near the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue and, breaking with racial attitudes of the day, pushed his young friend to apply.

Doing so, he said, according to dental historian Dr. Clifton O. Dummett, would allow him to help alleviate some of the challenges black America faced, as well as becoming a credentialed dentist at a time when there were only some 120 African American dentists in the entire country. Dr. Keep, like Dr. Noble, broke with standard racist educational polices and vowed his new school would “know no distinction of nativity or color in admitting students.”

In 1869 Robert Tanner Freeman became the nation’s first degreed African American dentist, where he returned to his native Washington D.C. and opened his own private practice in the same building as Dr. Noble.

Unfortunately Dr. Freeman was robbed of a long and storied career. After only four years of practicing, Dr. Freeman died, likely from cholera. Nevertheless, his professional accomplishments and the distinction with which he fought to achieve them fundamentally altered his family’s trajectory. Dr. Freeman’s grandson, Robert C. Weaver, Ph.D., became the country’s first African-American cabinet member and also the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Dr. Weaver was sworn in eighteen and-a-half months after passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Dental Determination

But as much as we celebrate the lives of these leaders, it’s important to remember that African-American History month is as much about the present as it is about the past. And today, more so than ever, the voices of dentistry’s past need to be heard.

For as far as the African American medical community has come, the latest findings continue to show that not enough black dentists are graduating to meet patient needs. Dr. Jeanne Sinkford, associate executive director of the American Dental Education Association, says that of the 5,000 dentists dental schools graduate each year, only 300 are black, a minuscule 6 percent. What’s more, black dentists overwhelmingly treat black patients comprising 62 percent of their patient loads. For White and Hispanic dentists, same race patients are around 11 percent and 10 percent of their practices’ business.

The lack of black dentists has created something of a historic holdover. While other professions have long achieved racial integration where a black professional is no more exceptional than a member of any other racial or ethnic group, black dentists can still be viewed as a unique neighborhood addition; an achievement worth noting. Which is exactly what East Texas news network KTRE did back in 2007 when it reported that Dr. Dallas Pierre, after 38 years, was still the city of Lufkin, Texas’ (population: near 40,000) only black dentist.

“There have been white patients who have entered my office and turned around and left because they found out that I was a black dentist,” his lead quote read in the KTRE article at the time.

Although he recognized that such treatment hasn’t happened in a long time, race, he says, still plays a part in who visits his practice and who does not.

Civil Rights in Words and Deeds

That President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act a half century ago is only a first step. And African American History Month, a celebration of all that black America has given us: in medicine, in education, government, the legal profession, civil rights, entertainment and athletics, can only do so much to shift the national conversation on race. Only when “the first African American to do this” or “the first to be awarded that” isn’t news, will we all achieve our true greatness.

In the 146 years since Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman’s Harvard graduation dentistry has matured from an apprenticed trade into a mature medical discipline, with 65 accredited dental schools in the U.S. and 10 in Canada.

Dentistry’s battle for its own legitimacy against the traditional medical establishment made it the perfect vehicle to tackle race too. Today, all dentists – no matter their race, color or creed – must ensure that the efforts of the past inspire the present. A pluralistic society that judges people’s actions, not their skin pigment, can’t be another 50 years away.

We’ve waited long enough.