The Future of Dentistry In The United States: Part 1

Welcome to the first in a six-part series on the trends that will shape the practice of dentistry in years to come. It’s a complex mix of drivers that will offer both challenges and opportunities for dental practice owners.

First, some background on shifting dental landscape.

After more centuries as a male-dominated profession, the indications are that women in dentistry will reach parity, or close to it. Dental school admissions are running roughly 50/50. Given that the dentists who are retiring or soon will be are almost all male, women are on their way to comprising half the practicing dentists in the U.S.

With increased dental school enrollment, the supply of dentists is expected to increase through 2035. While supply may not meet demand, and some areas will continue to remain underserved, dental prospects will continue to have a wide choice of dentists in most areas.

More and more new dentists are entering the profession, and many of them aren’t following the traditional practice model.

Here Come The DSOs

It might surprise you to learn that the number of solo practitioners in this country is shrinking – by seven percent a year, by one report. With fewer options in joining a solo practice, some 16 percent of dentists between 21 and 34 are opting to join a dental service organization (DSO).

However, the decreasing number of solo practices isn’t the only driver. The vast majority of new dentists have shouldered an enormous educational debt load. It makes sense for many if not most of them to work in a setting that will allow them to pay down that debt rapidly while not incurring the additional debt involved in opening their own practices.

At the same time, many established dentists have decided that they’d prefer to no longer deal with the many non-clinical responsibilities of running a practice. That’s true regardless of age bracket. Dentists nearing retirement welcome the opportunity to work fewer hours and to have a favorable exit strategy from their practice. For these reasons, participation in DSOs is growing and is anticipated to reach 30 percent as soon as 2021.

Centralization Drives Down Prices

Solo practitioners will be hard-pressed to match the economies of scale available through DSOs. Affiliated dentists who enjoy reduced costs in many areas can afford to offer services for less. That leaves private dentists in the position of shaving their margins to the bone to attract price-driven new patients.

With wages not keeping pace with the rising cost of providing dental care, it seems likely that price-driven and insurance-driven patients will make up an increasing share of the patient base. However, they’re not the only patients in a given market.

Change Your Focus

Despite current trends, dentistry was never intended to be a commodity business. There’s no reason why you have to base your marketing on how little your prospects will pay. Roughly 30 percent of a given market is composed of people who have the means and the willingness to go fee-for-service for the care they want from their dentist of choice.

Those are the better patients who will grow your practice and your bottom line regardless of how the DSOs continue to grow and penetrate even more markets.

For more information on what’s possible for your practice, reserve a free, no-obligation Roadmap call. It takes about as long as you need to place a single crown or dental implant.

The next post in this series will look at the impact of declining insurance reimbursements on solo practices, and how you can make insurance pretty much irrelevant to your success.