The percentage of black American dentists has not changed since 1970, according to a new report from the University of Michigan. Although 12 percent of the U.S. population is black, only 2.6 percent of the nation's 142,000 dentists are.

"Essentially, we are not attracting blacks to the field," said Michael E. Razzoog, associate professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan. "We are very concerned."

It's not so much that dental schools are not doing their job to attract blacks, Razzoog said. "It's just that there is a tremendous competition for qualified black college graduates," he said.

Increasing the number of black dentists is crucial to improving dental health for many poor people who lack adequate access to health care, said deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services Audrey F. Manley. "Minority practitioners are more likely to locate and practice in medically underserved areas and to serve low-income individuals."

The lack of black dentists also helps account for the high mortality rate of oral cancer seen among the poor, Manley said. Oral cancer, which can be detected during dental visits, strikes 30 percent more blacks than whites, in part because it often goes undiagnosed and untreated until it is in an advanced stage.