Pioneering diversity in dentistry for an inclusive tomorrow

Martelle Coke, RDH
Martelle Coke, RDH.

Editor's note: As we celebrate World Oral Health Day, it's important to look at the current makeup of our industry and ways that dentistry could better serve all members of the population. With that in mind, I am glad that Ms. Coke shared her thoughts below.

Diverse practitioners play a pivotal role in patient care and emphasize the trust and comfort patients experience when they are treated by professionals who mirror their backgrounds. Research by Street, O'Malley, Cooper, and Haidet showed that patients were more likely to disclose sensitive information and express concerns when they perceived their healthcare provider as culturally competent and relatable. 

Furthermore, Cooper-Patrick et al revealed that patients of color reported higher levels of satisfaction and perceived quality of care when attended to by healthcare professionals of the same racial or ethnic background. These findings underscore the importance of diversity in healthcare settings, as it fosters stronger patient-provider relationships and ultimately improves health outcomes.

I recently participated in an important webinar, "The Future of Oral Care: Nurturing Minority Success from Assisting to Hygiene," which shed light on the pressing need for diversity and equity in dental education and practice. With less than 4% of dental professionals identifying as minorities, urgent action is needed to foster an environment that nurtures a diverse talent pool.

During the discussion, we delved into myriad challenges faced by minorities entering dental hygiene programs, including a lack of representation, financial obstacles, and daily microaggressions. We underscored the critical importance of mentorship programs, cultural competency training for faculty, and enhanced accessibility for single mothers to effectively address these issues.

Now, let's explore why addressing diversity and equity in dental schools and offices is paramount.

  • The dental industry must foster minority success to thrive. The industry continues to face a staffing crisis that affects not only patient health but the bottom line. Yet, its longstanding diversity deficit perpetuates systemic barriers and fails to reflect the communities it serves.

  • Discussing diversity and equity breaks barriers to entry. Cultivating an equitable environment is vital for nurturing a diverse talent pipeline and ensuring equal opportunities for all. Open dialogues enable the industry to confront biases, dismantle systemic barriers, and elevate both opportunities for underrepresented individuals in dental hygiene and patient care standards.

But understanding its significance is only part of the solution. To effect measurable change, the dental field must delve into actionable strategies.

  • Change must begin at enrollment. Actively recruiting and supporting diverse students is crucial to combat feelings of isolation and foster academic success. Financial burdens hinder access to dental hygiene education; scholarships, dedicated resources, and flexible scheduling options are all vital to diverse student success and persistence. Mentorship initiatives provide invaluable guidance and networking opportunities for underrepresented students.

  • Recruitment efforts require reorganization and training. Proactive recruitment strategies and targeted outreach efforts are essential to diversify dental workforces and cultivate inclusive environments. Cultural sensitivity training for medical and dental professionals fosters trust and rapport with diverse patient demographics.

As the voice behind BrownGirl, RDH, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing diversity in dental hygiene, I am passionately committed to catalyzing change within the dental profession. Our collaboration with GoTu, a pioneering digital staffing marketplace revolutionizing the dental industry, last year resulted in a transformative joint scholarship, amplifying our mission to empower underrepresented individuals in pursuing dental hygiene careers.

I firmly believe actionable steps are imperative to drive diversity and equity in dentistry. Through initiatives like our partnership with GoTu and the joint scholarship, we are forging a path toward a more inclusive future. Together, we can unlock opportunities for underrepresented individuals and cultivate a dental community that embraces diversity at its core.


  1. Street RJ, O'Malley KJ, Cooper LA, Haidet P. (2008). Understanding concordance in patient-physician relationships: Personal and ethnic dimensions of shared identity. Ann Fam Med. 2008; 6(3), 198-205. doi:
  2. Cooper-Patrick L, Gallo JJ, Gonzales JJ, Vu HT, Powe NR, Nelson C, Ford DE. Race, gender, and partnership in the patient-physician relationship. JAMA. 1999; 282(6), 583-589. doi:
  3. Saha S, Beach MC, Cooper LA. Patient centeredness, cultural competence and healthcare quality. J Natl Med Assoc, 2008;100(11), 1275-1285. doi:

Martelle Coke is a registered dental hygienist with extensive experience in the industry. Coke established BrownGirl, RDH in 2018 to create a platform for women in dental hygiene to connect, share experiences, and provide support. BrownGirl, RDH has organized events, meetups, and conferences, as well as established scholarship funds for aspiring dental hygienists. Coke is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in the field, actively promoting equal opportunities and representation for women of color.

GoTu is a platform that enables dental offices to directly contract with registered dental hygienists, dental assistants, and associate dentists to address both short-term and permanent staffing needs. With a dedicated team of over 150 members, GoTu is committed to reshaping the landscape of dental staffing, ensuring seamless access to professionals while addressing the pressing workforce challenges faced by dental practices nationwide. GoTu and BrownGirl, RDH partnered to provide financial support for deserving minority dental hygiene students. The program's first recipient, Shakeya Hargrove of Fort Pierce, FL, received two years of tuition as she completes her Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene at Concorde Career Institute in Orlando, FL. Hargrove will matriculate in spring 2025.

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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