By Raymond Cohlmia, DDS and Marko Vujicic, PH. D
We are at a critical moment for the dental profession. What we do now, or what we don’t do, will define the entire profession of dentistry for decades to come. The pandemic has brought unprecedented disruption to our personal and professional lives, but it’s really what comes next that is the game changer. What’s approaching us is not just a guess. We have seen and will continue to see major acceleration in several trends that will have a profound impact on the profession.
The future is now being painted clearly and several factors once thought to be short-lived fads are now well established trends. From the patient’s perspective, we know that there is a shift in the mindset of how patients are perceiving health care overall. This includes dentistry and is particularly common amongst millennials. This phenomenon coupled with intensified consumerism and public and private insurance replacing the self-pay market is leading to a change in patient base. This will challenge our previous outlook when we analyze the future consumers of our dental care services.
Furthermore, we know that practice modality is transforming at a dramatic pace. This is fueled by the transition of the dental workforce to a younger, more diverse generation that will soon assume their roles as the new recognized dental care providers in the next decade. A decreasing percentage of dentists own their practice. Most dentists in Florida and much of the U.S. now practice in groups, with solo practice slowly disappearing (figure 1). More and more dentists are joining dental support organizations (DSOs) and a conservative estimate is that 15 percent of Florida dentists practice in these models, much higher than the U.S. average. As millennial and Gen X dentists replace baby-boomers, these trends will continue to intensify.
The educational format has also shifted to an integrated and holistic approach to patient care. Dentistry has been very successful in supporting the thought processes of wellness and prevention. This has become the main focus of the general public’s expectations for their individual wellness. However, we also need to acknowledge that our current system of dental care financing and delivery is not serving all Americans. We know that half of the U.S. population is not going to the dentist regularly and that cost barriers are the biggest reason why. Although we have made vast improvements over the last two decades in many aspects of children’s oral health, we have little progress to show when it comes to oral health for adults and seniors. In fact, income and race disparities are widening among adults and seniors for several indicators of oral health and access to care.
What is all this leading to? It brings us to a critical point for our profession. What we do now, or choose not to do, is critical to our future. Are we ready to accept that practice models are evolving and, inevitably, dentistry will too, like all other health care professions? Are we ready to advocate for policies that will work toward finding a routine dentist for all Americans? Are we ready to transition dentistry into a core component of primary care in order to align with the conversion to a holistic approach to patient care that we’re seeing within the educational format? Changes like these have the potential to grant access to primary care dental providers to millions of Americans. If the answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then the ADA and FDA will need to shift priorities in terms of how we support dentists and what we emphasize in our advocacy efforts.
This is a time for bold and defined leadership. You have heard both of us say that what is in the windshield is much more critical than what is in the rear-view mirror. The scenery around us will continue to change whether we move or not. The question is, are we choosing to move forward, or stand by and watch it all happen? Our profession is at a crossroads and our view through the windshield is vastly different than what’s staring back at us in the rear view mirror. We must ask ourselves: are we ready to embrace a bold new vision for the dental profession, or are we going to sit back and watch as change happens around us?
Reprinted from Today’s FDA 2022 May/June issue. Visit floridadental.org/publications to view Today’s FDA archives.