Diversity in dentistry: evolving nature of Australian workplace (1)

When it comes to all the forms of diversity within Australian dentistry, there are some who believe there has been a shift within the profession in recent years.

Embracing diversity is a way of acknowledging the unique blend of knowledge, skills and perspectives people bring to the workplace. It can include characteristics such as cultural background and ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, language and education.

According to the Diversity Council Australia’s [email protected] Index, 75 per cent of Australian workers support their organisation taking action to create a workplace which is diverse and inclusive.

A change in thinking

In that respect, Dr Alexander Holden believes dentistry has taken one step forward in recent years. Dr Holden, the Head of Subject Area – Professional Practice at the University of Sydney’s Dental School and a Federal Councillor of the ADA, claims to have observed, “a change within traditional thinking”.

“I don’t know if I would say we’re actually better as a profession, but we are definitely talking about it far more – and that is a critical step,” he says.

“Part of that shift comes from the figures that women now make up more than half of all dental practitioners in Australia. That marks a significant change in terms of gender diversity, and with that, I think we will also see a change in other areas of diversity.”

Not that the profession should be patting itself on the back just yet, Dr Holden adds. He says there is still a great deal of work to be done at higher levels, not just about the role of women but also practitioners representing a range of minorities and cultural backgrounds.

“When you look at the ratio of women-to-men in leadership roles in dentistry, it is woefully biased towards men,” he says. “But I don’t think we are going to see it like that for much longer. We’re at a stage where all of us need to ask if the environment we are setting up across the profession encourages women to be more involved within dentistry, and also apply that way of thinking to people from a range of backgrounds. Adopting that degree of reflection and awareness will, however, be a challenge for some.”

The evolving landscape

Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world; the home to the world’s oldest continuous cultures, as well as Australians who identify with more than 270 ancestries.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in four Australians were born overseas. An estimated 84 per cent of Australians also believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia. The most common understanding of cultural diversity has been in terms of the social changes that have occurred due to immigration.

All of which means healthcare professionals face an ever-evolving work landscape, demanding a far greater awareness of working with diversity, touching everything from membership and leadership

to product development and talent management.

The case for diversity

The US report The Case for Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce by Cohen, Gabriel and Terrell lists four important practical reasons why greater diversity in the healthcare workforce is imperative. Those points are advancing cultural competency, increasing access to high quality healthcare, strengthening the medical research agenda, and ensuring optimal management of the healthcare system.

The report also outlines why an awareness of diversity is so crucial, as most health care professionals will be called upon – at some point – to care for patients with backgrounds far different from their own. To do so effectively, practitioners must have an understanding of how and why different belief systems, ethnic origins, family structures, and a host of other factors influence the manner in which

people experience illness, adhere to medical advice, and respond to treatment.

It also outlines that health care professionals who have not embraced a clear approach towards diversity – both in dealing with co-workers as well as patients – are unlikely to provide optimally

effective care.

“This is why practitioners’ self-awareness of how they operate within a practice is so crucial,” Dr Holden says. “It is checking if your normal behaviour is compatible with other people’s cultural views, and that is where a lot of my older colleagues get impatient with this ideal, and just put this

down to ‘political correctness’.

“But this is actually something that as health care professionals, we have to make sure our service is acceptable and have contemporary thoughts about where society actually is, as the diversity of our society is changing all the time. It is about being thoughtful about who you are working alongside and who you are looking after, and that your behaviour is in order.”

This article continues in Diversity in dentistry: The evolving nature of the Australian workplace (2) (published Thursday 4 July)

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