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Progress Notes

Future of dental workforce, education inextricably linked

In these Q-and-A sessions, we take a closer look at pressing topics within the dental profession and what they mean to Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry.
From TAMHSC-BCD initiatives to hot-button questions, we consult the college’s own subject matter experts to get their input.

 

Dr. Eric Solomon
Media Resources/Steven Doll

This issue includes the perspectives of Dr. Eric Solomon, professor and executive director of institutional research. It’s a subject he knows a thing or two about, considering he’s spent the last 20 years of his career at Baylor College of Dentistry gathering, analyzing and circulating data regarding trends in dentistry and dental education. You can find some of his most recent research, “The Past and Future Evolution of the Dental Workforce Team,” in the August 2012 special issue of the Journal of Dental Education. Here, he gives us a crash course on the subject.

BDRO: According to your article, there seems to be a pattern of cause and effect when it comes to economic conditions and dental school enrollment. When inflation rises, dental school enrollment suffers as students look to avoid high loan-interest rates. Conversely, when unemployment rates rise and jobs are tight, dental school enrollment increases. Taking current economic conditions into consideration, what is the outlook for the dental workforce?

Solomon: In terms of the applicant pool, the outlook is pretty good. As long as inflation is low and the job market is tight, that always encourages people to further their education. Can’t get a job? Go back to school. That’s true in dentistry, and across higher education.

In terms of influences on the dental workforce, there’s a host of external and internal forces.

One of the external forces that impacts dentistry is the economy. Major government funding programs — whether state or federal — can affect dental education to some extent.

Demographic trends are an external force that affects enrollment levels. When there are a large numbers of individuals in an age group, there is an increase in the competition for jobs, so some individuals will pursue graduate education, including professional school. You get a similar effect as when you have higher unemployment rates.

Then there are also internal forces. Changing dental disease rates will impact the services practitioners provide, and the number and type of staff they need to perform those procedures.

Manpower trends tend to have an impact on private practice. When the perceived number of dentists is high, it tends to be discouraging to individuals going into dental school. There’s word of increased competition. If the supply of dentists is high enough, it’s going to drive down salaries for dentists who are working as employees. We didn’t used to see that with dentistry, but we’re seeing it more and more. But when the number of dentists compared to the available services is low, it tends to encourage students to pursue a dental education.

Another external factor is consumer trends. The consumer is the final arbiter of all goods and services. What we’re finding is individuals in today’s consumer market are looking for cost competitiveness and convenience, so dental practices that can offer those things are doing well in this economy.

BDRO: Your article in the Journal of Dental Education mentions two factors that increase costs for dental patients: rigorous sterilization protocols and increased staffing. While sterilization protocols certainly are here to stay, if staffing decreases or plateaus, what impact does this have on the quality of patient care?

Solomon: What we see is staffing has been level in the past few years.

Will staffing go down? I don’t see any major indications that dentists are going to decrease their staffing levels. We’re constantly getting more technology coming into the dental office. What we could see is technology replacing certain staffing activities and creating new ones. We do see employees being laid off across the country, but dentistry is a very personnel-intensive business, so I don’t see this occurring in dentistry to any large extent. In any event, I don’t see any of this impacting the quality of dental care.

BDRO: How have enrollment trends at TAMHSC-BCD mirrored national averages through the past couple decades?

Solomon: We do tend to mirror national trends here. Our enrollments went up during the ’70s when national enrollment trends were going up. After 1978 when national enrollment trends were going down, our enrollment went down as well. Most recently, we’ve seen dental school enrollment increase. Our enrollment has increased on a smaller scale, too.

BDRO: How is TAMHSC-BCD preparing students to meet the challenges facing the dental workforce of the future?

Solomon: We can probably anticipate that our graduates will be treating a wider spectrum of the population than they have in the past. That’s why it’s appropriate and useful that we provide learning experiences in cultural competency. These experiences will help our students provide effective treatment to patients from a variety of backgrounds.

Also, we have the Advanced Technology Clinic. That’s extremely helpful because it helps train our students in cutting edge technology, which is probably what they’re going to want and use when they go into practice.