How to Survive and Thrive in Uncertain Economic Times
Moving Dentistry Forward Despite the Recession

"Richard Valachovic, DMD, MPH Executive Director, American Dental Education Association"

A national recession affects each branch of health sciences education differently. In terms of dental education, and the professions in general, there is always strong interest during times of economic stress, and that continues to be the case as we recover from this most recent economic downturn. The number of applicants to dental schools has been steadily increasing over the past decade as dentistry has become increasingly recognized and appreciated as a highly desirable profession among the current generation of college graduates who are the major source of applicants. In fact, we now have about three applicants for each first-year position in dental school. We also know that dental care is a service that people will sometimes defer during challenging economic times but, with the exception of some areas of the country that are particularly hard hit, practicing dentists seem to be doing well in general at this time.

There are a number of factors, which, in my opinion, differentiate the current recession from previous recessions and help to explain why, to date, dentistry continues to be viewed as an attractive profession that enables dentists to make a healthy living. For example, many people who were laid off as a result of this downturn had dental insurance benefits that they carried with them after their layoff, and even though the benefits might expire in a short period of time, people seemed to be using them while they lasted and many practicing dentists benefited from that. In addition, more than at any other time in our history, the value of health and appearance is an important factor in keeping a job or getting a new job in our more service-focused economy. It is hard to get even an entry-level job at a fast food restaurant if you don't have an attractive smile.

Dentists have also benefited from the new federally funded dental benefits in the Children's Health Insurance Program enacted in 2008. One other key factor that is unique to this economic situation is that access to dental care remains a compelling challenge, and so there is a pent-up demand for dental services that had not existed in previous downturns. But even if the full impact of this economic downturn may yet be ahead of us, before making dire predictions let's see what happens over the next few months.

In assessing the particular character of this recession, I think it's important also to note the role that the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) is playing in helping both current and future dentists to prepare for economic downturns.

ADEA's key role in addressing the economic downturn is to ensure that our basic curriculum enhances the ability of our current students to be caring healthcare providers and competent small business owners. We are finding a dramatic increase in interest by our dental schools in improving the quality and scope of their programs in practice management. More than 90 percent of all dentists are in private practice, and success requires skills in both the practice of dentistry and the business of dentistry.

Economic swings between great times and not-so-great times have been the norm throughout our nation's history, and for our profession. Dentistry enjoyed great success for the decade leading up to the economic downturn in 2008. What I see now is that dentists are becoming much more aware of the costs related to their practices, the way that expenses impact their productivity and livelihoods, and the importance of continuing to foster understanding about oral and systemic links so that dentistry isn't only about looks. Many dentists are being much more conscious of improving the efficiency and the comprehensiveness of the care that they provide. This will translate into practices that are better managed from a business perspective, better suited to treating the health of the whole person, and successful in keeping dental care more affordable and available for the large number of patients who will be needing and demanding dental care in the future.

Like other health sciences schools, dental schools must seek numerous innovative ways to meet the challenges of an economic downturn. In addition to ensuring a curriculum that is inclusive of business knowledge that dentists must have in order to grow their practices, ADEA seeks to help dental schools recruit and prepare individuals from diverse backgrounds who will be able to attract patients who can identify with these practitioners. To put it another way, as our nation's population becomes increasingly diverse despite the economy, the opportunity exists to expand access to oral health care for this population by increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the dental profession. It is an important path to follow toward both increasing diversity in the dental profession and improving the nation's health regardless of the particular state of the economy.