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Racism in dentistry: Measuring the scale of the problem

Blog Author Shareena Ilyas

Blog Date 17/12/2020

Our latest survey for dentists and dental students is an essential step towards tackling racism and discrimination in dentistry, explains Shareena Ilyas, co-Chair, BDA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The UK dental profession is greatly strengthened by its diversity. Despite this, colleagues still share stories that range from verbal abuse to being overlooked for professional opportunities as a result of their race, colour, accent or religion. We want to combat these issues and to do that we need to understand the scale of the problem. As our work on equality, diversity and inclusion gathers momentum, this is exactly what we intend to do.

Last week we launched our first survey on racism in dentistry, created in collaboration with the Faculty of General Dental Practice/College of General Dentistry. The survey is open to all dentists and dental students across the UK and aims to collect experiences of racism, racial discrimination and racial inequalities within the profession.


Take the survey: Tackling racism and discrimination in dentistry

Collecting crucial data and evidence 

This is the first study of its kind and is a step towards confronting racism in dentistry on many levels.


In September of this year, our President Russ Ladwa and I, brought together ethnic minority dentists to discuss their experiences of discrimination in their professional lives. One of the key issues identified was the lack of evidence regarding the scale of racism in dentistry. A BDA review of the academic literature confirmed there was no clear comprehensive quantitative study on the extent and nature of racism affecting dentists in the UK. This defined our next steps and we set to work to establish that evidence.


As dental professionals we’re trained to take an evidence-based approach to clinical practice, and we should be no less thorough in how we set about campaigning for change.

Building a picture of racism in dentistry

“Our intention is to try and capture interpersonal racism from microaggressions right through to physical abuse.”

We need to understand just how many of our colleagues have been affected by racism. The results of this survey will be critical in helping us to clarify what forms it takes and what impact it has had on their career, their professional development and their personal lives. These results will help us to underpin what actions colleagues have taken to report their experiences and, of particular interest, what they want the BDA to do next.


Our intention is to try and capture interpersonal racism from microaggressions right through to physical abuse, as well as those instances where biases in decision-making mean that people are treated unfairly because of their ethnicity, skin colour, accent or religion.


It will be followed up in the new year with a qualitative study that aims to produce a rich, personal perspective as to how racism manifests itself. 


Identifying key areas of concern

“White applicants are twice as likely to be offered a place than Black applicants.”

For the survey results and our subsequent actions to be truly effective, we must address not only the cause (racism) but also the effects (inequality). This is no small task and it will not be solved rapidly nor easily. However, the data generated will give us a sense of what the biggest challenges are and where to direct our attention.


We’ve already identified several areas of concern, one of which is dental school admissions. There is evidence to suggest that ethnic minority applicants are less likely to receive an offer of a place to study dentistry than White applicants. Furthermore, White applicants are also twice as likely to be offered a place than Black applicants, who comprise only 2% of the successful applicants.


We hope the outcomes of the survey will inform our understanding of what supports and motivates people to apply to dental school, so that we can begin to identify some of the causes of these racial inequalities. This will require an analysis of the applications process and admissions decision-making in order to ensure that applicants from all backgrounds are given an equal and fair opportunity.


There is also a need to look at the content of dental undergraduate education to ensure that future dentists are well-equipped to serve diverse patient communities - such as by ensuring diagnosis of skin lesions is taught using a variety of skin tones. It is great that dental schools are already reviewing and revising their curricula with this in mind.


We are also concerned that ethnic minority dentists are over-represented among those subject to GDC Fitness to Practise proceedings. The GDC is aware of this and we hope to work with them to identify the factors culminating in this situation. It is not yet clear if this is a result of a higher level of complaints, perhaps because of conscious or unconscious bias among complainants, or because of a bias in the GDC’s decision-making processes, or other factors.


The evidence from the survey will underpin the development of our ideas and our future plans. In order to determine our direction, it is very important for us to hear from you about your personal experiences.


Championing equality, diversity and inclusion

“Together we can build a profession in which all our colleagues are treated with dignity and respect.”

This survey research forms part of wider BDA strategic work on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) which is committed to dealing with issues identified within the profession. This includes those faced by ethnic minority dentists as well as other protected characteristics, such as gender and sexuality. Over the coming months we will reveal more of this strategy, overseen by our new EDI Committee which I chair alongside fellow PEC member Laura Cross. We will continue to work with the FGDP/College of General Dentistry and will also partner with a number of other groups such as the African Caribbean Dental Association UK in taking this work forward.


This survey is a key component of our objectives and our ongoing work. We want to continue to engage with you in the months ahead, so that together we can build a profession in which all our colleagues are treated with dignity and respect. A profession where everyone has an equal chance to succeed.

Please complete the survey and help us to gather crucial data about your experiences.


Shareena Ilys

Shareena Ilyas

Co-Chair, BDA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee