Before you agree or disagree with me, here are a couple of more important pieces of data to consider. First, let’s get a better idea of how many dentists are out there. As of 2017, there were 60.9 working dentists per 100,000 people in the US, which is an increase of 4.1% since 2007. So despite an increasing US population, the number of dentists is still increasing relative to that.
Next, the increase in the supply of dentists is not expected to be just a blip; the ADA HPI predicts the per capita supply of dentists will continue to increase through 2037. Finally, U.S. spending on dental services was largely flat from 2008 to 2014, and the rate of increase in spending had been decreasing since 2002. There has been a modest increase in spending for 2015 and 2016, but it’s important to note that a good amount of that increase has been driven by children and elderly patients.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The demand for dental care is most concerning to me. There are several barriers for patients to access care, and the biggest one is cost. I don’t think it is correct to assume that increasing the supply of dentists will necessarily lower the cost of care, nor will we necessarily see a greater distribution of dentists to areas that are underserved.
Our profession should be laser-focused on ways to reduce barriers to (and therefore increase demand for) care. But what also concerns me is that 10 new dental schools have opened since 2007 and they are steadily supplying dentists to a field with questionable demand. Young folks are going into large amounts of debt and joining a lifelong career serving people who encounter too many obstacles to receive that care.
While I don’t think we need to close any dental schools, I would strongly caution us against opening new dental schools at this critical time.
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