Blacks in short supply in field of dentistry Sunday, April 29, 2007 Zachary Lewis Plain Dealer Reporter Despite medical advances, most dentist's offices still look like the 1950s. The man with the drill is white. Less than 6 percent of dentists in Cuyahoga County are black, according to recent research. The disparity is even sharper in Cleveland proper, where 51 percent of the population is black but less than 2 percent of the dentists are. Cities across the country have the same problem, as does the entire field of medicine. Only 1 percent of staff doctors at The Cleveland Clinic are black, said Deborah Plummer, director of the Clinic's office of diversity. The shortage has dire consequences for the health of urban residents. Experts worry that people are less likely to get care if they can't find a doctor or dentist who looks like them. "You try to give everybody a ticket, but not everybody will get on the boat," said Cynthia Clark, director of Health Legacy of Cleveland, a nonprofit organization that provides medical scholarships for minorities. "It's directly related to health-care disparity issues." The situation is not likely to change soon. Nationally, blacks represent less than 5 percent of dental school students, including those at historically black schools such as Howard University and the Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. Asian students are more common, but both Hispanics and American Indians enroll even less often than blacks. Of the 280 students enrolled at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, only five are black. "And that's the high mark," said Dr. Jefferson Jones, an assistant professor at the school. "We usually have one, two or none. . . . Those who do apply are being evaluated against 4,000, and our admissions department is strict." Jones is scheduled to receive an Award for Excellence tonight from Health Legacy and the Clinic honoring his nearly 40-year career at Case and his status as Cleveland's first black endodontist, or root canal specialist. He's also a prominent member of Forest City Dental Society, a group of 45 local black dentists that dates to 1956, when blacks were excluded from the American Dental Association. But the work Jones considers the most important today is Case's Healthy Smiles Sealant Program, which provides dental care to children in Cleveland schools. "It's about the basics," he said. "You can't straighten anyone's teeth if they don't have teeth. . . . Civil rights and teeth - they wouldn't seem to go together, but they do." A study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that minorities in all age groups see a dentist less often than white patients do. The difference was widest among blacks 65 or over. Less than 34 percent had seen a dentist within a year, compared with 59 percent of white patients. Jones, 75, has mentored generations of black dentists. Andre Mickel is an endodontist in Beachwood. He credits Jones for the "epiphany" that drew him into the field. So does Francis Curd, who trained under Jones in the 1970s and taught at Case until 2006. Curd said he "would not be here today" if it hadn't been for Jones. Curd has been studying race in dentistry for years and advocating for change. Speaking from the University of Las Vegas, where he teaches, Curd said black dentists are growing older and retiring, and fewer are rising through the ranks to replace them. Fifty- seven percent of black dentists are older than 50. "It's getting worse," he said. "The numbers are going to go down. We're losing at black schools and not gaining at the traditional schools. . . . There's nobody coming in behind us." The scarcity of people like Jones and Curd may be one reason. Karen Johnson, vice president of surgical and critical-care services at Lake Hospital System, said young minority students might have the talent and inclination to study medicine or dentistry but won't pursue those fields if they don't have role models. "They have to be able to see people they want to emulate," said Johnson, who is black. Euclid native Kari Cunningham is one of the five black dental students at Case, all of whom, incidentally, are women. She learned from her father, a dental assistant in the Air Force, and her determination to be a dentist came early. Given that inspiration, nothing could have swayed her, she said, not even the hostile conclusions she knew some people drew about her. "I was used to being the only black person in my classes. It wasn't an issue for me. . . . I didn't want anyone to think I got an easy way out." Dentistry has a visibility problem as well. Television shows like "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" have glamorized medicine. Dentistry has no such champion. "Tell me about a program that has dentists on it," Johnson said. Money is another factor. Tuition at Case dental school is $42,500 a year, Cunningham said, and setting up a private dental practice can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the most troublesome explanation for the disparity relates to education. Struggling urban schools have tended to produce minority students with underdeveloped math and science skills, said Clark, of Health Legacy. That means they'll be less likely to advance toward medical or dental school. "If [they] don't have that background, most of them have to go into other fields," Clark said. Those who've gone into medicine or dentistry make up "a little elite group of people . . . who've managed to rise through the ranks despite their background." There are some positive developments. The Cleveland Clinic is developing a program called Saturday Academy, which will expose urban children to medical careers. Meanwhile, practitioners like Jones and Curd continue to recruit actively. That leads to "little waves of improvements," Clark said. For now, though, dentistry and medicine are likely to remain light-skinned. "I know it's 2007, but there are a whole lot of things that are still 1950s," Johnson said. Link to the original article.