May 2016
Volume 7, Issue 5

Numbers Game

The math doesn’t lie. Add the figures, subtract, divide, or multiply the numbers and, if you have entered the data correctly, the result is the unadulterated truth in its purest form. The compiled numerical results can measure and track different key performance indicators of a business. They can reveal or raise awareness to subtle shifts in the industry. And compiled over time, data can also point to possible industry trends and offer potential insights into the future.

For example, in 2013 the number of students graduating from US accredited dental school programs reached a decade high of 5,351. This graduation rate is a significant increase over the 3,778 graduating dentists in 1994 but is still less than in 1978, when 6,300 students tossed their caps into the air that graduating spring. Back in 1978 there were 60 dental schools; today there are a total of 65 with plans by several universities to open more. What is behind the move to increase workforce numbers?

Perhaps the impetus is in reaction to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that indicate the industry will need 18% more dentists by the year 2024. Perhaps the expansion has been spurred by the fear that the number of retiring dentists in an aging workforce will soon outpace the numbers entering the workforce. Or, given the fact that the population in the US continues its upward climb from 321 million residents in 2015 to an estimated 334 million by 2020, the realization that the number of dentists needed to serve a burgeoning future population base will be in short supply if the dental industry does not take action. When put together, perhaps all these indicators are the reasons behind predictions of a looming shortage in the workforce and the need to increase the numbers of practicing dentists.

However, other numbers might raise questions about this urgency. One number that is indisputable is the growth in the US population base, as the Census Bureau Population Clock incessantly ticks off the number of residents being added to the nation each second. Yet, despite the rise in the US population and the increased number of dentists to meet the perceived impending demand, utilization of dental care via private dental practices has not increased over the last decade but rather has steadily decreased by nearly 10%. The decline in utilization is largely attributed to the reduced number of dental visits among working-age adults between ages 19 and 64. As for the fear that the number of retiring dentists will leave a vacuum in the workforce, the current data would suggest that clinicians are deciding to practice an estimated five years beyond the 2001 ADA reported average retirement age of 64.8 years.

The increased numbers of new and aging dentists in the market combined with the sluggish dental economy has allowed the dental technology industry to keep supply and demand in check, despite the nearly 3% per year reduction in laboratory facilities over the last 7-8 years. The question becomes: Should the dental economy return to pre-recession numbers, would this industry have the capability and capacity to meet that demand?

Pam Johnson

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