There’s no denying dentistry is difficult at times. During the initial phase of the 2020 global pandemic, when dental offices were shut down and considered “non-essential” for months (only to reopen to a different patient flow and new expenses), many in our profession began to ask themselves one question: “Is it all still worth it?”
This question continues to echo behind the scenes.
I will admit I have wrestled with this question a few times in the past. Some years back, I even reached a point where a sales letter sat on my desk for months, reminding me I was just a phone call away from giving up the office. Even now, a part of me wonders about our profession’s future. And it’s not because of new technology, corporate dentistry or insurance reimbursement rates. To be candid, it’s because our profession feels marginalized at times.
Most of us have heard patients say they hate going to the dentist. While we’re used to that sentiment by now, the sting of being considered “non-essential” last year still remains. And we all know “do-it-yourself” dentistry options are on the rise, as if it’s not really necessary to go to the dentist.
Then there’s the list of stressors associated with owning a dental practice, which has grown. It includes
- Whenever you work in health care, there are times you must deal with high stress situations and challenging people. On any given day, this can be patients, vendors and teammates. We must combat concerns about the work/clinical environment at every turn. Hiring and keeping hygienists also emerged as a new challenge in 2020.
- There is a continued shift toward reducing the level of insurance reimbursements for the work we do. In a predominately insurance-based practice, can we actually still make a profit?
- New PPE requirements, patient changes, team changes and increasing expenses have taken their toll on profits and compensation. Patient volume remains at 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels and likely will stay that way for the next several months, according to data from an ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) survey collected the week of January 181.
- More than $400,000 in student loans accompanied by 8+ years of lost income to repay them can sometimes feel overwhelming, bringing the question of a dental education’s worth to the surface.
- Physical. And of course, we all know the long-term physical demands on our bodies from the repetitive, un-natural positions we often “pretzel” ourselves into to treat patients.
Given all the challenges, emotions and perceptions, what can we hold on to that ensures us our chosen profession still offers a viable, rewarding and lucrative path for the future? There are many positive touchpoints we all should recognize and celebrate.
We Are Essential Providers
Despite the rocky start during the initial stages of the pandemic, we finally emerged victorious. In the eyes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government, our own teams and now the public, we are seen as an essential service. As a result, shutdowns are something we should never experience again in dentistry. We garnered CDC evidence that dentistry is not affected by viral spread, and we still enjoy the highest level of infection control of almost any industry.
This all affirms the value of the public service we provide to our communities. It is up to us to continue to champion and market the value of the services we offer, which hasn’t always been one of our strong suits.
The Opportunity to Help People One-on-One
Every day, dentists help people meet basic needs: to eat and to be both disease and pain free. Many industries come and go, ebb and flow, but dentistry always will be necessary. And dentistry tends to maintain or even improve during recessions (with the right planning and adaptation). As a prevention-oriented field, people need us even more when they don’t come regularly. What’s better than helping people every day, and making a good living doing it?
Fill a Universal, Perennial, Lifetime Need
Teeth are here to stay. Dentistry is a product, a service and a skill that has and will continue to stand the test of time. While techniques may change, oral hygiene and teeth will always provide professionals with opportunities and income anywhere in the world. Dentistry is a skill that will never be replaced or go out of style. And it is a service needed by humans of all ages.
A Respected Profession
Even though many people will tell you “they hate going to the dentist” and joke about their fear of the dental chair, a 2019 poll from MoneyWise lists dentists as among the most respected professionals in the U.S.2 That is an important point to let sink in.
Medical doctors are also highly respected. Do we really think their patients can’t wait to come in for their procto, gyno, colonoscopy, biopsies and other medical treatments? Most people are reticent to go to any doctor. Medical procedures of any kind are generally uncomfortable and at times frightening. That doesn’t reduce the respect patients have for those educated in the art and science of treating and healing people in need.
The patients who verbalize their dislike of dentistry while sitting in my chair are indirectly telling me something even more important. Yes they dislike dentistry, but their appreciation of me as a dentist and as a person allowed them to overcome their fear and choose to come to our office for treatment. That outlook has allowed me to see these patients and their comments in a different light and to appreciate the incredibly positive side of working with people who are (naturally) fearful of what we do.
Top Job, Top Pay and Flexibility
U.S. News & World Report ranks jobs yearly, and in 2021 dentistry came up as the No. 9 best job in the country and the No. 11 best paying career3. We have a high annual salary that keeps growing and an almost non-existent unemployment rate4.
One of the other points from U.S. News & World Report? Dentistry has higher-than-average flexibility. There are multiple career paths available within the field. There’s much more flexibility in terms of the hours and days worked than with most other professions. And I may only be speaking for myself on this, but having flexibility and freedom is far more worthwhile than any amount of money!
When you are part of an industry, it can be difficult to keep perspective. Stepping back and visualizing a more global picture can help. It’s important to ask yourself, what would you do if you weren’t a dentist, and how does that field compare to dentistry?
Our stress levels can be high, but they are average when compared to other careers. Life is stressful, work can be stressful, and kids can be stressful. The good news is much of the stress the average dentist goes through can be mitigated. There are many ways to reduce our normal stress levels in dentistry.
Finding Your Passion
What about earning a good living—a profit—with all of today’s challenges? Every business has challenges in this COVID-centric world. And some will fail. Dental industry professionals are just in the process of working through our challenges. While we need to adapt, there is still a good living to be made.
If you follow any career path for financial reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll come to dislike it over time. If you’re thinking about becoming a dentist, make sure you’re choosing a career you will enjoy. There is almost no amount of money that will make a career you dislike better. And when you enjoy what you do, it doesn’t really seem like work.
I have a similar message to veterans of the profession. If you aren’t happy, is it because of a specific challenge with dentistry or have you lost your passion? The good news is there are solutions for either scenario. I have been through both!
I’ve been interested in dentistry since I was young. I shadowed and worked within the field for years while growing up, so I had a good idea of what dentistry would be like after graduation. I was still not fully prepared for all I would come across.
There is nothing more satisfying than helping people. I would be hard pressed to find many other careers that have the same potential for self-fulfillment and pride as what I get to do every day. I have had strong ups and downs in my career, but each valley has led to a higher peak in the end.
A Rewarding Career
Dentistry is still a great profession for many reasons and can be extremely worthwhile. It is not always an easy road, but it can be a highly rewarding one. I still love what I do every day, despite the challenges!
The question I would have any dentist or potential future dentist ask themselves is this:
“Do you enjoy thinking about dentistry and helping other people, and do you strive to constantly learn more?”
If so, then the brightest parts of your career may still be ahead of you! There is a light at the end of every tunnel, as long as you find the right path.
- Nordlund, Scott. “Americans Say These Are the Most Respected Professions.” MoneyWise, 20 November, 2019, https://moneywise.com/a/the-most-dishonest-profession.
- “HPI: Patient confidence in returning to the dental office increases.” ADA News, 21 February, 2021, https://www.ada.org/en/publications/ada-news/2021-archive/february/patient-confidence-in-returning-to-the-dental-office-increases
- “100 Best Jobs.” S. News & World Report. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/the-100-best-jobs.
- “Dentist Overview.” S. News & World Report. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/dentist