The dental labor crisis is a moment of opportunity

wattWhile hospital staffing crises continue to make headlines, dental care—often overlooked and separated from medical care—also faces significant workforce challenges. As I lead dental practice at Sun Life Financial Corporation, which includes DentaQuest, the largest Medicaid dental benefit organization in the United States, I know all too well that you can't be healthy without a healthy mouth. Considering the many links between oral health and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, the disconnect between medical and dental can cause real harm and have lasting consequences that extend beyond the mouth. This is why regular dental care is so important.

But if you've tried going to the dentist recently, you might have noticed something. Like others in the health care field, many dental professionals have left the workforce over the past few years, citing the pandemic as the impetus to leave. The difference is that other areas of the health care industry have seen a rebound in the workforce, while dental practice employment remains down at all levels, according to preliminary federal data.

A survey shows more than 3,000 dental hygienists permanently retired during the pandemic, while the American Dental Association's Health Policy Institute (HPI) estimated in 2022 that about one-third of dental assistants and hygienists expected to retire within five years . HPI data also shows that the median age of dentists is 51.5 years old, signaling a coming retirement boom. HPI estimates that labor shortages have reduced dental practice capacity by 11%. More than half of dentists told HPI they hope to add staff this year, and 90 percent said they found recruiting extremely or very challenging.

The pandemic has intensified competition in part because it has highlighted the importance of dental professionals such as hygienists and assistants to successful practices, prompting the need to match pay to the value of these roles. To ease recruitment woes, dentists have begun making competitive pay adjustments to their staff. Many have changed their hours to suit applicants' needs, added retirement plans and health insurance, and offered signing bonuses and paid time off. These benefits are uncommon in the industry—less than half of dentists, for example, offer health insurance to their employees. In Sun Life's own operations and in our work with dental practices, we've seen salary increases of 30% to 40% in some areas.

But this is just one of the changes the industry needs to make to ensure everyone has access to oral health care. We now have a unique opportunity to address long-standing racial and gender representation gaps in health care and increase access for underserved communities.

The diversification and development of the dental workforce must first focus on young people. Most people decide to enter the dental profession during or even before high school, but many students from underserved communities rarely have the opportunity to learn about or experience these career paths, let alone see people who look like themselves reflected in the workforce.

Increasing the number of Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native dentists and related personnel will require not only financial investments in student pathway programs, but also cultural and systemic changes to address the challenges these students face. It’s no coincidence that dental deserts are concentrated in rural and low-income communities, adding barriers to those who need dental care most. This means investing in dental programs and scholarships in targeted geographies and supporting community-based internships, research and programs that help drive systemic industry change.

These investments are critical to promoting the oral and overall health of our communities. Staffing and workforce challenges directly contribute to access issues, especially for the underserved. These populations already face significant barriers to accessing care, from language barriers to coverage gaps and transportation challenges. We can and should start educating the next generation of dental professionals in ways that directly address these barriers, such as adding language requirements or focusing on public programs like Medicaid.

Many changes must be made to respond to the challenges facing our dental workforce and the wider healthcare sector. We know this is a critical moment – ​​and we can do more to seize it and bring about lasting change.

Steve Pollock is President of Dental at Sun Life US, which includes overseeing DentaQuest, the second largest dental benefits provider in the United States by membership and the largest dental benefits provider under Medicaid, as well as growing in the commercial and other dental markets status and support from approximately 80 Advantage Dental+ clinics providing care to underserved communities.

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