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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dental diversity outreach comes to Spokane, as advocate pushes for inclusion of underrepresented groups in workforce

Students at the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center learn about the dental profession through Delta Dental’s Dental Professional Pathways program in this 2022 photo.  (Courtesy Lolinda Turner)

When Lolinda Turner was younger, her family didn’t treat toothaches with much urgency.

“My mom would tell me to go drink some ginger ale and lie down,” said Turner, now program manager for Dental Workforce Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Delta Dental of Washington. “We didn’t have the wealth to go to the dentist.”

For the past two years, the registered dental assistant has been running Delta Dental’s Dental Professional Pathways program, with the goal of introducing young members of historically marginalized communities to the dental profession. The work brought Turner to Spokane last month, as she met with young people at the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center and the Next Generation Zone, a career training center for 16- to 24-year-olds in downtown Spokane.

Turner said students were surprised to learn they could begin pursuing careers in dentistry right out of high school.

“They thought it would take a lot longer,” Turner said.

The work is inspired by sobering statistics about diversity in the workforce among dental practitioners. A 2021 study by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute found that just 3.8% of the dental workforce is Black, though Black people make up 12.4% of the population. The disparity is also true for Hispanic people, who make up 18.4% of the population but just 5.9% of the dental workforce.

Turner has brought the program to 19 organizations statewide and more than 1,000 students. It’s meant to expose students to what the work is like, and show them that they can succeed in studies toward dental work. It’s a path Turner had to find for herself more than two decades ago.

“I answered a Craigslist ad 22 years ago,” Turner said. “I had no idea, until I walked into the office, that it was a dental office.”

She started as a receptionist, working her way to dental assistant and later office manager. Turner has been a registered dental assistant with the state since 2013, and in July will begin work with the Pacific Northwest University School of Dental Medicine under construction in Yakima.

Training a cohort of dental workers from underrepresented communities is even more important after passage of a bill this session that Turner fought for, legislation that requires the Department of Health to collect demographic information – including race, ethnicity, gender and languages spoken – from health care providers who offer it. Turner said the Department of Health will be able to create a database patients can use to find providers who look like them and share life experiences.

State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, was the prime sponsor of the bill, taking it over from retiring Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle. Riccelli said in his work with the CHAS Health Clinic, he’d heard from patients seeking care from providers who they can relate to.

“We want a workforce that is diverse and represents our population,” Riccelli said. The law will allow the Department of Health to identify gaps in specific professions, Riccelli said, and tailor recruitment programs to target communities in need.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bipartisan bill Tuesday, with Riccelli and Turner standing at his sides.

“Right now, what historically underrepresented groups are having to do is go on Google and look for doctors, and do hours and hours of searching,” she said. With this new tool, people like her father-in-law and transgender son will be able to find doctors, dentists and mental health professionals who understand the medications they’re on and life experiences they have had, she said.

Seeing those doctors, dentists and other health practitioners who look like them will help build trust among members of underserved groups, Turner said. She was back in Spokane this week, talking to the Inland Northwest Dental Conference about her work and the need to diversify the workplace.

“Representation does matter,” she said.