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Feature: Future of Dentistry Part 2: Supply of Dentists

Are There Getting To Be Too Many Dentists? What Is The Long Term Outlook of a Dental Degree?

Part I of the Future of Dentistry series looked at a number of potential new dental schools opening. But are new dentists actually needed? The true answer is that it is quite a fine line. It is difficult to say that we do not need new dentists since rural areas across the U.S. are experiencing dentist shortages. Advanced Dental Hygiene practitioners are gaining a stronger footing by exploiting this gaping hole in provider coverage. The ADA's move to create a CDHC (Community Dental Health Coordinator) takes a phenomenally intelligent step towards dealing with the hygienists' union-style hostile policy pursuit of higher provider-level status. The hygienists' goal is to achieve a target in dentistry mirroring what Nurse Practitioners have obtained in medicine. In the long run though, this argument ultimately pushes for more new dentists to graduate to provide appropriate top-level oral health practitioner coverage to all Americans. A strong counter-argument may consider that the debt burden of new dental graduates is quickly inflating. What prevails are year-over-year increases in dental fees charged to the average patient. Dental graduates become so engrossed in dealing with their loans that they flock to the cities in search of decent paying associateship opportunities, more modern and convenient lifestyles, thus leaving rural areas undermanned. Increasing the competition between dentists by adding new schools simply creates long term income instability without the necessary decline in tuition rates.

It is of our opinion that the problem of scarcity of dentists (in rural areas) is correctable via incentive-based policies. By that, it is advisable that legislators and policy makers come to the realization that the amount of dentists out there may be in a slight short-supply, but the problem is correctable by encouraging current dentists and graduates to settle in rural areas. There are numerous ways that this can be done, including providing financial benefits to dentists establishing practices in rural districts as well as easing licensing restrictions for dentists willing to work in shortage areas. The problem is that legislators are being lobbied by many other organized movements with the exact opposite intent. It is up to dental students and dentists to educate, motivate, and encourage the appropriate development of policies that correct the supply-side problem in dentistry, without compromising care. We just hope that this article helps to enforce what the true nature of the problem is. So how can you help as a dentist or dental student? Join the ADA, and contribute to ADPAC. ADPAC is the American Dental Political Action Committee, and they are the people who will lobby legislators on dentists' behalf.

We also understand that there is a problem with supply-side issues and looking at the statistics provided by the HRSA (see bar graph), it is evident that the overall number of dentists will start to dwindle in the near future unless new dental schools are opened or somehow more new dentists are recruited (most likely international dentists). This harps back to Part I of the Future of Dentistry series in that yes in fact, new dentists are required to a certain extent. The confusing variable though is that new technology that is ever increasing is allowing current dentists to perform procedures much quicker, as well as decreasing the existence of dental disease. It is of course a fine line that remains as to how many new dentists need to be graduating, what kind of incentives need to be created to attract dentists to rural areas, as well as what should be done to decrease tuition burden for new dental graduates.

In fact, if the ADA and ADEA were not planning to open any new dental schools at all, we would be witnessing a dramatic number of decreasing dentists year after year in between the years 2014 and 2031 as shown below.

We sincerely believe that taking into account all of the factors discussed earlier, that dentistry remains confidently, one of the premier professions available to young undergraduates seeking strong, stable careers. The outlook of the supply side remains guarded in that encroachment from hygienists is increasing, new dental schools are being considered to decrease shortages, and international graduates are increasingly being eased into the system. Although guarded, this is only the supply side, as we will see in Part III of the Future of Dentistry, the demand side of dentistry is exponentially increasing.

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