The Great Dentist Crisis! Is It?

SCAREDSlate claims that no one wants to be a dentist anymore, and that everyone hates them because of the movies. (There may be some truth in that! But I think people hated them first. Mostly people hate them because people hate dental work and are suspect of anyone who would do it all day!) Says Slate: “during the 20th century’s final decades, a dwindling number of Americans chose to become dentists. In the early 1980s, U.S. dental schools produced about 5,750 new graduates per year. In 2007, with a population that’s nearly one-third larger, there were about 4,700.” And that: “In 1980, the United States had 60 dental schools; today there are 58, and class sizes are smaller.” That is one way to look at the history of dentists! But let’s pull some teeth here.

Well. From 1989 to 1997, the number of dental school applications actually doubled. And from 1989 to 2001, the number of dental school students actually increased, though it never quite got up to its early 80s peak.

What has happened to advanced dentistry in the last ten years? “In the last ten years, first-year predoctoral enrollment has risen an average of 1.2% annually,” says the ADA.

What has happened over the last sixty years? From 1950 to 2009, the population of the U.S. almost exactly doubled. So did, quite nearly, the number of people enrolled in dental school.

What happened to dentists’ income? As of 2004, their “average net income has increased 117% since 1990,” according to the American Dental Education Association.

So actually we have the same ratio of dentists to Americans now that we had in 1950. Except they just make a heck of a lot more money now.

The ratio of dentists to Americans peaked in 1990. And yeah, the absolute number of dentists is predicted to decline: “81,000 dentists will enter the workforce between the years 2000 and 2020, but 85,000 will leave it,” is the way one researcher put it. But the decline in dentists projected to the year 2025 still, at the end, still keeps the ratio of Americans to dentists at well above the low 1960s numbers.

But guess what? We don’t need as many dentists, due to prevention and better oral hygiene. More than half of children and teens have no dental decay now, amazingly. So when Slate says that “about 600-800 more dentists enter the profession than retire from it each year,” it’s hard, even taking into account what will happen when all the baby boomers start to retire (the year 2023 looks a little rough!), to worry about what they call “the disappearing dentist.” Will the dental lobby stop at nothing to convince of their plight?