Bellevue dentist addresses racial inequities in dental care

Board-certified oral implantologist Dr. LeRoy Horton is working to change the lack of Black representation within the dental field.

“About 3.7% of actively practicing dentists are Black, and keep in mind we make up about 13.5% of the population, so there is a huge disparity in representation,” said Dr. Horton.

Dr. Horton believes this nationwide statistic contributes to poor oral health for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community.

Originally from Greece, Dr. Horton graduated from Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma. He attended Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington (UW) School of Dentistry. Today, he has practices in Bellevue and Covington and is dedicated to addressing the needs of those with limited access to dental care.

“Communities trust providers from their own community, so if we can’t have that representation in the profession, it’s going to be a huge gap in the amount of trust that the people have in the information they are receiving, the recommendations they are given by their providers and the overall acceptance rate of the treatments that are proposed,” said Dr. Horton.

Dr. Horton has seen the lack of trust lead to less frequent exams, delayed treatments and overall poor oral health for Black adults and children. According to the Washington State Department of Health, nearly one out of every six third-graders has severe tooth decay, which is defined by having at least seven cavities. And BIPOC children have higher rates of untreated decay, which can lead to chronic pain and infection.

To properly address the issue of representation and dental care knowledge, Dr. Horton believes it starts with exposure to dental education and role models at a young age.

Jasmine Lomax is part of “The Tooth Fairy Experience,” a program presented by the School Nurse Organization of Washington and Delta Dental of Washington that teaches young children about the importance of dental care.

“As a kid I didn’t see people that actually looked like me on TV, and I often thought the tooth fairy had blonde hair and blue eyes, so it feels incredible to bring a different take on what the tooth fairy can look like,” said Lomax.

Throughout Black History Month, Lomax attended Northwest African American Museum events to hand out books and dental kits.

“When kids see us we want them to think, ‘hey, they look like me.’” We find it important for us to get our dental information across, if they can relate to us,” said Lomax.

Outside of his practice, Dr. Horton is dedicated to removing barriers for aspiring BIPOC students, partnering with organizations that prioritize STEM education in Black communities and volunteering as an affiliate instructor at the UW School of Dentistry.

“An immersive program, they get introduced to the field, they get to engage with mentors like myself that look like them, come from the same areas, and these programs exist for high school students, for undergraduate students,” said Dr. Horton.

Investing in dental programs that recruit and retain diverse students ultimately increases representation and leads to better oral health care for the BIPOC community. Dr. Horton has also collaborated with colleagues to create scholarships and financial aid packages for underrepresented students.

“It really helps entice these young talented kids to come to the University of Washington, where we can then hopefully keep them in the community,” said Dr. Horton.