Dr. Osundeko: Q&A

February 28, 2023

Dr. Tofunmi Osundeko, originally from Nigeria, now lives in Seattle and runs White Center Smiles, where she has built a practice that takes special care to be a trusted and safe place for Black residents of the city and beyond to get quality and honest oral health care.

Dr. Osundeko understands that every individual requires individualized care but that, with Black dentists being underrepresented in the profession, it can be difficult for Black patients to find care that feels personalized and culturally relevant.  

What does cultural background have to do with good dentistry? Dr. Osundeko practices the same high quality, clinical dentistry as any other office but she has created an environment that is both familiar and disarming to Washington residents who may come from far and wide just to find a dentist that looks like them.  

From the Afrobeats she plays over the stereo to the sense of community she builds with her patients – even going so far as to have staff drive them to and from appointments if they can’t do it, themselves – everything Dr. Osundeko has done in crafting her practice goes back to her deep understanding that health care and community are intertwined.  

Delta Dental of Washington asked her to sit down for an interview in which we ask her to help us unpack the connections between community, health, dentistry, and diversity.

Dr. Osundeko from White Center Smiles


Your practice is open to people of all backgrounds, but you take special care to be a place for Black patients to come to feel seen and heard. How have you accomplished that?


The music is probably the most different thing. I do like a variety of music from multiple backgrounds, especially the Nigerian background, because I am Nigerian. I play a lot of Afrobeats.  But what I think draws most people is just our atmosphere which is relaxed and low-key. We're always laughing and joking, either with each other or with patients and that puts them at ease.   We also offer a lot of different things to help accommodate anxious patients. We really take as much time as necessary to verbally go over options with them, answer all questions and see if they have special things that help them during an appointment like weighted blankets or aromatherapy that maybe another office will say ‘no’ to.  We just try to be as accommodating as possible for patients, and they give us feedback that they really appreciate it, and it helps them get the work done that they need to get done.


What motivated you to build your practice around Black patients?


When I first moved here, I didn't necessarily think about it too hard. But then, as I would go to meetings and events at the Washington State Dental Association, I would look around and feel pretty lonely. I wouldn't really see anybody that looked like me at all. Everyone's super friendly, super welcoming. But there are cultural differences between being a black dentist and a white dentist, or a black patient and a white patient.  So not only did I feel kind of isolated, but imagine black patients who’ve grown up here, lived their whole lives here, and they’ve only had a couple black dentists to go to and feel comfortable with. And a lot of those dentists are moving toward retirement so I’m wondering ‘where are the black dentists that black people can trust their care to going to come from for the next 50 plus years?


Why is it important for black patients to be able to choose a black dentist?


Studies have shown that in a medical setting, black patients, especially black female patients – their pain is undervalued and people don’t take it as seriously, and that has a direct effect on their care and whether they’ll pursue quality treatment.   If patients are able to talk to someone they feel more comfortable talking to, they’re going to be more proactive with their care, they’ll accept more treatment more often, and do what’s best for themselves. It just makes it easier if you know your provider’s background and where they’re coming from.   It comes down to trust: being able to break down that already pretty big barrier between the patient and the dentist.


Is it mostly a clinical benefit, then, to have more Black dentists to care for more Black patients?


It’s important from a clinical standpoint and a social standpoint. It just makes it easier when the patient and the dentist know each other’s background and where they're coming from. Especially in Seattle, when I talk with Black patients that are transplants from somewhere else, I find myself agreeing so much with them about the things they say they’re missing.   For instance, I was able to get a reference from one of my patients on where to get my hair done which is a really tough area for Black women in Seattle to really feel comfortable. But then I was able to give her a reference for a black physician because I have a network there.


So, having more Black dentists would help to grow and strengthen the Black community in Washington at large?


It’s hard hearing from people who grew up here, or even transplants from other places who are black, but don’t tend to stay for very long because they feel isolated. If there were more black providers in dentistry, our patients would have a community to work in and build on.  The black population has learned to adapt to situations that aren’t ideal so I’m sure most black people have gone to white dentists and have gotten used to it. And that’s not necessarily bad. But one thing I’m hearing is that my patients do want to be more intentional about where their dollars are spent and making sure they are supporting our demographic. They want to support me and see my business thrive as a black-owned business in an area where that isn’t necessarily common.  There just aren’t a lot of black dentists in Washington. I worked all over the King County and Pierce County area. and that's been pretty consistent. My patients will come all the way from Everett or Olympia to my office because they want to be treated by someone that gets it.

What, if anything, do you see the dentist community in Washington doing to increase the representation of Black people in dentistry?


We have a separate committee in the Washington State Dental Association that is focused on making sure that the people we nominate into leadership positions are diverse in an array of ways, whether it's gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. So, there have been intentional steps to increase diversity.   But it has been difficult to broach the subject in the group as a whole because there are people that may believe they're more anti-racist than they truly are, and it can feel uncomfortable to face the fact that your blind spots still exist. So that has been a challenge. But I will say that there are very intentional steps being taken to help improve things as an organization.


What would be your advice be to individual Dentists in Washington be who may still struggle to confront their blind spots, particularly with their Black patients?


Understand that being color blind isn't the benefit that you might think it is. And it is okay to see people for who they are because that's truly what they want. They want to be respected for what makes them who they are, whether it is their gender, sexuality, or cultural background. That's what makes them who they are, and it's better to acknowledge it directly, and respect it, and admit where you may not fully understand it, instead of claiming you don’t believe they are different or unique. Everyone is not the same and that's okay.