LGBTQ+ Education Strengthens Dental Curriculum

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Photo by Shedrack Salami

A recent study conducted with dental students at various stages in their degree program demonstrates that engaging in LGBTQ+ competency in the curriculum leads to improved treatment and outcomes for this patient population.

This training is crucial, given the long-standing hurdles LGBTQ+ communities encounter in accessing health care, says Reginald O. Salter, DDS, PhD, study co-author, assistant professor, and director of student activities and admissions at the Howard University College of Dentistry.

Salter and his co-researchers analyzed survey results from 178 first-year through postdoctoral dental students both before and after they completed the training. Their results, published in the 2023 study, “Integrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Competency into the Dental School Curriculum,” provide meaningful insight.

For example, the number of students who reported clinical preparedness in treating LGBTQ+ populations increased by 13% after training, and those who reported enhanced knowledge on LGBTQ+ health disparities grew by 32%. In addition, the number of participants whose responses indicated a bias toward the community decreased by 10% after training.

“While [as a practitioner] you may think that you are open and welcoming to others, it’s really understanding [other groups] and what their lived experiences are,” Salter says.

Negative past health care experiences are especially prevalent across this population, and can heighten fear or apprehension about seeking necessary treatment, he says. As a result, individuals may avoid dental care to sidestep discomfort and ridicule.

More than one in five individuals in the LGBTQ+ population reported postponing care for over one year due to disrespect or discrimination by providers, according to the report “Discrimination and Barriers to Well- Being: The State of the LGBTQI+ Community in 2022,” by the Center for American Progress, a policy institute.This number is even higher in the transgender community — one in three — as they face significant stress in seeking medical care due to the absence of systems for correctly identifying their gender, name, or pronouns in paperwork and during treatment, says Salter.

“It’s really about those personal encounters,” he says. “When you understand your patient and you develop a relationship, you’re able to treat the whole patient, not just the oral cavity.”

Due to the positive outcomes of the competency training, he recommends all health care schools incorporate cultural awareness instruction that covers a wide range of diverse populations, including LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented communities.

“For health care to truly be universal, all people need to feel like they can access health care and health education without any type of biases or harm or ill feelings,” Salter says.

He added that it’s essential for practitioners to be educated on inclusive practices and behaviors, and to create a welcoming and accepting environment within their practice. “When you really learn how to cultivate an understanding, how you cultivate awareness [and] cultivate encounters with different populations within a segment of the larger population, that awareness makes you a better health care provider.”