Serving the Underserved: Q&A with Dentist George Jenkins

February 2, 2022
George Jenkins, Columbia University
George Jenkins

Few people appreciate the broad potential benefits of dental care as well as George Jenkins, DMD. Jenkins' childhood dentist not only fixed his teeth, but also inspired him to pursue a career in dentistry.

As associate dean for access, equity, and inclusion at Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine, Jenkins' goal is to create more dentists from diverse backgrounds. We spoke to Jenkins about dental care, the significance of serving the underserved, and toothbrushes.  


Why is it important to have more diversity among dentists? 

In addition to creating a diverse student body, more diversity in admissions can help with disparities. Not every student will go to an underserved or underrepresented community, but critical mass creates more possibility of ‘If I don’t do this, who will?' 


The College of Dental Medicine Class of 2025 includes more Black Americans than any year in the school’s history. Why is that significant? 

It could have been a little bit of luck but it helps work towards our goal of aligning admissions with needs of underserved communities in our immediate neighborhood and across the country. The more Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are given good resources, coaching, support, and are exposed to underserved communities, the more we reduce disparities. It’s a long-term approach but it starts now.


Oral health is not included in general health policies in the United States. Medicare and (in most states) Medicaid do not cover dental services. How detrimental is it that dental care is not included when we talk about “health care”? 

There has been progress, but there is still a long way to go. The dynamics of our culture, forcing people to choose between light in their home, food, medicine—dental care does not even make the list. The AMA and ADA will have to join forces to emphasize the connection between oral health and overall health and well-being, the subject of a report by the Surgeon General in 2000.   

At Columbia University, dental students take classes with medical students in their first year. Further collaboration between the dental and medical communities will be vital to illustrating dental care is about more than saving a tooth.    


The College of Dental Medicine has provided dental services to at-risk children and older adults in Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights for decades. Treatment protocols are designed to be sensitive to diverse cultural backgrounds, values, and belief systems. Why is that vital to success? 

You have to be cognizant of people’s apprehension, let them know you’re aware of cultural nuances and historical injustices as they relate to medicine. Historically, this community has been left high and dry by researchers and studies taking place in these neighborhoods and elsewhere. Experiments like Tuskegee (the infamous syphilis study that withheld treatment from Black men) have long-term impact. If you show awareness, you show respect.  


What happens when dentists do not position themselves in underserved communities? 

Unless it’s for a child, going to the dentist is at the back of the priority list. When you’re not proactive about dental care, a lot of problems manifest, and they spill over into the hospital or become other emergencies. People are sicker; they’re less likely to be presentable for a job; there’s a lower quality of life. A simple oral exam can prevent these problems.  


What can someone who is not a dentist do to help encourage dental care in underserved communities?  

Get excited about politicians who consider related legislation. Change starts with better policies.  


If you could give patients only one piece of dental advice from now on, what would it be?  

Don’t be afraid to assert yourself in the decision-making process of your care. Find a dentist you can form a relationship with, to have an exchange of care and concern. Don't let a doctor or dentist tell you what is best. Feel empowered to participate in your care.  


We have to ask: Why are there so many different kinds of toothbrushes?  

Capitalism. Toothbrushing is a truly mechanical process—rubbing and scratching plaque off your teeth. You can do that with many different brushes, toothpaste, a coarse agent. There could be one universal toothbrush. Do not be intimidated.  

References

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Learn more about other contemporary Black pioneers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center who are making history and advancing medicine, in past Black History Month profiles:

  • Marwah Abdalla, MD, professor of medicine, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Kenrick Cato, RN, PhD, assistant professor of nursing, School of Nursing
  • Lorna Dove, MD, professor of medicine, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Jasmine McDonald, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health
  • Gina Wingood, ScD, MPH, the Sidney and Helaine Lerner Professor of Public Health Promotion, Mailman School of Public Health