Having just returned from AALS, I have been thinking about all I saw and heard at the conference. I attended some outstanding panels and talks but it is Brad Smith's Plenary Program talk on Preparing a Diverse Profession to Serve a Diverse World that I can't get out of my head. Actually, Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Corporation, did not really speak on his assigned topic. His talk, though interesting, was really about how disruptive technologies have changed the world and will continue to change the world. (If his remarks in the panel discussion following his formal remarks were more focused on the announced topic, I cannot say as I regret I had to leave the Plenary Program just after the conclusion of his formal remarks.)
Brad Smith did briefly discuss the lack of diversity in the legal profession -- noting that law is the least diverse profession, followed only by dentistry. This last observation about the lack of diversity in the dental profession, earned Mr. Smith his biggest laugh of the speech when he added "why, I have no idea."
Of course, it was funny in an offhand way. But it was also a marker of how uncurious we can all be about things, how uncurious we can all choose to be, and how even those of us who pride ourselves on promoting innovation can think in remarkably static ways.
That roughly three and a half percent of all American dentists are African American can tell us some things about the legacy of exclusion on the basis of race from dental education and the dental profession in the United States. That African American dentists overwhelmingly serve the African American community (with a reported 62 percent same race patient panel) can also tell us some things about patterns of dental practice.
A story could also be told about how dentistry's move from an apprenticed trade to a profession arguably made the dental profession less diverse. The rise of the university-affiliated licensed dental school in the late nineteen century (first at the University of Maryland) made the roughly 120 apprentice-trained African American dentists anachronisms. Only slowly did African American enrollment in these new style dental schools grow.
Dentistry, for some time, has been a contracting profession. For a considerable period of time, few new dental schools opened and a number of dental schools closed. The profession contracted but not uniformly as African Americans disproportionately disappeared from dental schools and from the ranks of practicing dentists.
Of course, many factors are at play. Dentistry has grayed during this period. Dental education is now overwhelmingly debt financed making the path more challenging for those who will not move into a family-owned or associated practice. Dental services are often uninsured in the United States and more often paid out of pocket. Even Americans with the best known "dental insurance" plans often have a form of coverage that might more accurately be described as pre-paid dental for prophylactic care or limited "dental coverage" for actual low risk, high cost dental events. In short, it is not an easy time to launch a dental practice.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for dental services will continue to substantially outstrip supply. As most dental students form the intention to enter dental school through exposure to family members and friends in the field, we should all give a thought to how technology and innovation might play a role in opening the world of possibility for a more diverse dental profession.
x posted at prawfsblawg