Kyle Ratliff, a 2016 graduate from the Indiana University School of Dentistry (IUSD), felt firsthand the pressure of being an underrepresented minority student studying dentistry. He said he was one of seven Black students — considered an “accomplishment” compared to past years — in his graduating class.
“A lot of stress comes with that,” Ratliff said. “You want to be professional and looked at in a positive light, but some people may have a negative way of perceiving you.”
According to data from the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), 39 African-American students applied to IUSD in 2017, and one student enrolled, an enrollment rate of 2.5 percent. It’s important to note this doesn’t necessarily mean IUSD accepted just one Black applicant, since students can choose to not enroll. According to data provided by IUSD, the school has had as many as six and as few as three Black students in classes from 2017 to 2022. Each class has a little more than 100 students.
Ratliff, who is now a dentist in Fort Wayne, said he got involved with different clubs and organizations, including being co-chair of his class, because “if I wasn’t, the voice of a minority wasn’t heard. … I felt like I had to be involved in a lot of things to give a different perspective.”
Priscilla Clinton, who graduated in the same class as Ratliff, said she felt like she had to seek out help whenever needed, while other students seemed to have the help coming directly to them.
“It was very lonely sometimes,” Clinton said. “You didn’t have too many people who could relate to the same issues you were having.”
Clinton, who now works at a corporate dental company in northwest Indiana, said a lack of Black students, faculty and professors led to some racially-charged incidents, including a peer posting a picture of himself in blackface to social media. Clinton said it’s not only important for dental programs to have more Black students, but also more Black faculty who can be “allies” to those students.
Ina McBean is the director of the IUSD office of diversity, equity and inclusion, and acknowledged the school needs to be better with its minority enrollment numbers, including Black students. This isn’t a problem unique to IUSD, and there are worse examples out there. Twelve dental schools didn’t enroll any Black students in 2017.
The best way to enroll more Black students at IUSD, according to McBean, is introducing those students to the possibility of dentistry earlier.
“The earlier we can expose underrepresented minority students to the profession, the better,” McBean said.
IUSD partnered with other medical programs for “Breaking the Myths,” a summer program for underrepresented minority students where they can learn about different medical fields, including dentistry. For older high school students who are thinking about college, they can also meet with advisors and mentors.
John Daniels, president of the National Dental Association, said that’s “an excellent way of doing it.” The stereotype of college students is mindlessly-wandering 19-year-olds, but Daniels said too many go to college having already decided what they want to pursue.
“We have plenty of excellent students pursing higher education,” he said, “but not many of them are exposed to the benefits of the health professions, and dentistry in particular.”
One of the direct results of not having enough Black students enrolled in dental programs is it translates to a lack of Black dentists. Black representation in any medical field is important given a strenuous history of medical injustice against Black patients. According to data from the American Dental Association (ADA), 4.1 percent of Indiana dentists in 2016 were Black, compared to 86.4 percent for whites. For reference, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the state’s population in 2017 to be 9.3 percent Black.
McBean, who wants IUSD enrollment to reflect state demographics, said her office talks to students about patients who don’t go to the dentist because they’re reluctant to trust white medical professionals, or any other reason such as cost. The office also tells students to educate patients about why it’s important to be mindful of their dental health without making them feel bad for not going to a dentist regularly.
Another complicating factor for Black patients is how many dentists accept public health insurance such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). About 17 percent of Indiana’s Medicaid enrollees were Black in 2017, according to data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. About 41 percent of Indiana dentists accept Medicaid or CHIP, according to the ADA. That’s higher than the national average of 38 percent, but it still limits where patients with financial struggles can go for care.
As a young professional, Ratliff said he sees how racial disparities and stereotypes play out in dentistry. He assessed Black patients are reluctant to go to the dentist because “there’s no one who looks like them to educate them.” For younger patients, Ratliff said this can contribute to a lack of Black students applying to and getting into dental schools.
“If people aren’t aware of the issue, they’re not going to pay attention to or address the issue,” he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
IUSD student Dino Dieudone participated in a recent “Breaking the Myths” summer camp, which tries to recruit minority students to dentistry and other health fields. (Photo provided)