By Kenzie Ferguson

Travis D. Tramel Ph.D, MA, RDHAP

When I entered the dental profession as a Mobile Registered Dental Hygienist in Alternative Practice, I had no idea what obstacles I would face.  I had no idea about the needs for public health preventative dentistry. I had no idea of the disparities in dental healthcare. Life has been very different coming from the traditional dental practice. Being mobile and transitioning to the public health sector has opened my eyes to the real needs of individuals especially the children in the Title 1 schools. To see the looks on their faces and to see people of color operating a dental clinic in their school has been rewarding. They come up to me, now wanting to understand the educational road I took to get into the dental profession. They always say “we’ve never seen anyone who looks like us, so it’s not a profession we see ourselves doing.” 


Travis D. Tramel Ph.D, MA, RDHAP
GeriSmiles Dental Hygiene Practice

Representation matters. That phrase is becoming a rallying cry among many industries to do better in terms of ensuring people of all backgrounds, colors and ethnicities have a seat at the table and a voice in decision making. It also sets a powerful example for children who might not regularly see people that look like them in places of power or authority. Representation is essential in politics, art, sports and business. But, when it comes to health care, not seeing yourself in your doctor or dentist can have dire consequences for health outcomes.

A study in Oakland looked at how seeing a Black doctor affected Black men’s approach to tests and treatment plans. Researchers offered $25 to complete a baseline survey and gave participants a coupon for a free health care screening upon its completion. The study design is fascinating, and you can read more about it in the Harvard Business Review. It demonstrated that men who saw Black doctors were more likely to elect additional screenings and tests. And the only participants who agreed to “invasive tests” were the ones who saw a Black doctor.

While this is only a small study in one city, it suggests that seeing a doctor of the same color or racial background means better and more comprehensive care. Trust is so vital in the doctor-patient relationship. There are many reasons Black Americans and other minorities have lower levels of trust in health care providers. But it seems that trust and satisfaction in health care providers increases when the doctor is of the same race as the patient.

According to the Health Policy Institute, in 2015 only 3.8 percent of dentists were black and 5.2 percent were Hispanic despite representing 12.4 and 17.7 percent of the U.S. population. Lower than expected representation of people of color in the dentistry profession has startling implications for these minority groups’ health outcomes.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, significant disparities exist in oral health among communities of color. Its research indicates that “children of color see a dentist less often and receive fewer preventative services.” That sounds reminiscent of the Oakland study and would suggest that the lack of Black and other dentists of color is a real barrier for those communities. Of course, the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation understands there are many issues with access to care for these populations, and we work with partners across the country to try to address them by funding clinics and community events. But the lack of dentists of color is a much bigger issue and requires a different type of response.

As part of our mission to support oral health, we have partnered with universities across our enterprise to provide scholarships. Historically, we haven’t targeted these scholarships specifically for students of color. We intend to change that.

As part of our commitment to addressing racism as a social determinant of health and to build representation in the dentistry profession, we will work to focus our scholarships on qualified applicants representing Black, Hispanic and other communities of color. We understand that this will not fix the problem – and certainly not if we are alone in our effort. I hope that other funders will look at ways to support increased diversity in the dental profession, and we will continue to examine our grantmaking to ensure we’re promoting equity and fighting systemic racism.

We need more people of color mentors. If the community actively see us supporting each other as dental professionals in the community, then I believe we will get a better response from the community. Kids only do what kids see. I love every moment I get a chance to mentor kids and show them that I am no different than they. “If I can do it, you can do it better.”

Travis D. Tramel Ph.D, MA, RDHAP
GeriSmiles Dental Hygiene Practice