Do you remember visiting your dentist as a child? Many of us have fond memories of visiting a local dentist who felt like family—after all, in many cases, we visited the same dentist multiple times per year for more than a decade. Many of the dentists I speak to on a regular basis have a somewhat nostalgic view of the profession—because there is no doubt it is changing. And unfortunately, many of these same dentists look to the future with apprehension as a number of forces are threatening the dental industry as we know it.
The most obvious of these factors is the crushing debt that dental school graduates are saddled with. A 2010 survey conducted by the ADEA shows that over 44% of the 2010 graduating class has a debt of over $200,000. With this level of debt hanging over their heads, it is not surprising that young dentists are afraid to take on the financial risk of opening their own practice. Instead, they look for non-ownership dental jobs with established practices.
Further clouding the future is the pressure from the general public to reduce costs. Currently, there is an intense focus on cutting medical health care costs—but pressure on the dental community will follow. The public will demand lower costs and will receive them… often in the form of dental corporations promising lower fees.
A third factor is the reality that many of the best and brightest are leaving general dentistry—either by selling their practice and moving on, or by pursuing specialties such as cosmetic dentistry. It’s easy to understand the appeal of cosmetic and big case dentistry, but the truth is that it is very difficult to achieve the level of financial success that many of these dentists hope for. In any case, the net result is that talented dentists are fleeing the field of general dentistry faster than they can be replaced.
Taken together, the various pressures facing local dentists are having a dramatic and plainly visible impact. Local general dentists are closing up shop—in many cases because they don’t think they can compete with dental corporations undercutting their prices. And these local dentists aren’t being replaced, because dental school graduates saddled with overwhelming debt can’t afford to take the financial risk of opening their own practice. Instead, they find jobs with established practices (who may be on the way to closing up shop themselves), pursue specialized dentistry, or go to work for dental corporations.
The “good old days” of dentistry are quickly being forgotten. At the rate we are going, our children and grand children won’t have the opportunity to build a relationship with a dentist they trust as they grow up. Local dentists will no longer be the pillars of community they once were—they’ll be replaced by corporations which value profit and profit alone.
However, I don’t believe that all is lost. An alert local dentist can absolutely navigate these turbulent waters and compete effectively against dental corporations. I’m willing to fight for the future of this industry—are you?