Joan Rush, LLB, LLM (Health Law and Ethics) is a former adjunct professor in the faculties of law and dentistry at the University of British Columbia.
Why are we surprised to discover, through a scandal involving abusive Facebook posts, that discrimination and harassment are present at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry? Leadership of the dental profession and of Canadian dental education remains a white male bastion. The deans of all ten faculties of dentistry in Canada are men, and of the 18 directors of the Canadian Dental Association, only one is a woman. There are no people of colour on the CDA board, yet many dentists reacted angrily to a July 2013 online post in the Journal of the CDA by Dr. Ernest Lam calling for greater diversity in the leadership of the profession. One dentist argued that rather than worry about diversity, CDA leaders should limit the number of graduates to promote greater profitability for working dentists.
Like all forms of discrimination, the misogyny and callousness at Dalhousie have been carefully taught. The CDA and the Deans Committee of the Association of Canadian Faculties of Dentistry should reflect on the message sent by their glaring lack of diversity and their failure to care about the growing number of Canadians who do not have access to essential dental treatment.
The "tone at the top" in the CDA and in dental faculties creates a sense of entitlement among dental students and encourages a lack of empathy for the many Canadians who need their care. Dental students receive no mandatory training in treating special-needs patients and are taught that, because dentistry is private, they can offer any service and charge any fee they wish. The result is a profession that does a great job providing cosmetic dentistry and Botox to wealthy Canadians while failing to provide essential dental treatment to Canadians who are poor, disabled, elderly or living in remote communities. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported in November 2013 that, relative to the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada performed "poorly" in insuring equitable access to dental care.
The women of the Dalhousie dental faculty are within their rights to demand an appropriate response to the sexual harassment they experienced. In addition, Dalhousie must assure all Canadians that the university does not accept the culture of hatred and chauvinism that developed in some of its male dental students and faculty. Dalhousie can use the revelation of degrading and misogynistic behaviour as an impetus to change the culture of the dental faculty into one that places a priority on empathy and commitment to care.
The members of the Dalhousie dental "Gentlemen's Club," which was responsible for the offensive comments, could dedicate their first year of practice to working, under supervision, in hospitals, geriatric residences, not-for-profit clinics, and in remote areas of the province, to serve patients who desperately need dental treatment. The chauvinistic professor who showed his class a safety video featuring bikini-clad models could dedicate time to supervising the Gentlemen's Club members during their year of service, as could Dr. Tom Boran, Dean of Dalhousie's Faculty of Dentistry, who has so far remained silent about the culture that developed within his Faculty.
Canadians pay a lot for dentists to be trained. Tuition fees for dental school are shockingly expensive, but still represent less than a third of the real cost of training. Taxpayers make up the difference. It's time that Canadian dental faculties ensure that their graduates are trained to be respectful and empathetic to each other and to all Canadians, so that dentistry can become the partner in health care that Canadians need it to be.