Back to the future

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“When you consider that the majority of dental diseases are preventable, then let’s see a focus on prevention and research,” says Professor Chris Peck, University of Sydney.
“When you consider that the majority of dental diseases are preventable, then let’s see a focus on prevention and research,” says Professor Chris Peck, University of Sydney.

A decade ago, the future of dentistry looked like a limited, and more female-dominated, workforce. A.M. Walsh looks at how the predictions measure up to reality, and what the future holds

Predicting how changes will affect dentists over the next decade depends on whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of practitioner.

Beyond the inevitable impact of technology on both clinical and business practices, it’s how dentists adapt to the tensions of increasing costs, greater competition and the progressively more complex needs of patients that will shape their future.

Looking at the global workforce in general, millennials are becoming the dominant generation and in this multigenerational environment, many have begun to wonder how this workforce can be best managed.

Over the next decade, one of the biggest factors affecting the profession will be the amount of dentists in the workforce. According to 2005 labour force projections compiled by the Australian Institute for Health & Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH), the number of dentists and oral health professionals working will almost double. This means over 15,000 dentists and 4000 dental hygienists, dental therapists and oral health therapists will be practising by 2020. For patients on public waiting lists, this is a good thing. But how will it play out for dentists?

“Some will see the opportunities, others the risks,” says Dr Phillip Palmer, managing director of Prime Practice, a dental practice management company. Palmer sees a rising trend in the corporatisation of dentistry as a response to the projected workforce numbers. “The corporates will increase their footprint by buying up smaller practices, leading to larger practices, and there’ll be an increase in employee dentists as opposed to owners,” he predicts. “I think there’s a growing demand from dentists, especially female, for more part-time positions, with flexible shifts and longer opening hours, which a larger practice can accommodate.”

Palmer notes that there’s another side benefit to this corporate approach: dealing with the increasing costs of compliance. “For those dentists who just want to do clinical work, being an employee of a larger business means they can concentrate on just being a dentist instead of dealing with a huge amount of paperwork,” he says.

“I think there’s a growing demand from dentists, especially female, for more part-time positions, with flexible shifts and longer opening hours, which a larger practice can accommodate.” – Dr Phillip Palmer, managing director, Prime Practice

Administrative duties are not likely to decrease. Troy Williams, CEO of the Australian Dental Industry Association (ADIA), thinks that rules will tighten for dentists. “The Australian government is beginning to have a better understanding of how important regulation is for the dental industry, but many dentists aren’t fully aware of their statutory obligations when it comes to buying cheaper overseas products…this is something the ADIA is committed to improving and will keep lobbying the government on.” He also sees the growth of larger practices, where the corporate model means equipment and supplies are centrally procured. “Our dental care is still the most expensive in the world,” he says. “This is a way of managing costs.”

Dr Toni Surace, a practising dentist and managing director of Momentum Management, also foresees a smarter, more business-savvy approach by dentists. “Businesses will need to become more entrepreneurial to survive,” she says. “It will be hard for some as it may feel like it’s too big a change, but they need to start asking the questions ‘what is resource planning’ and ‘how can I manage expenses’, otherwise they really won’t know what to do.” Not only does this involve an increased awareness of advertising and marketing, but with the growth of social media, it’s imperative that dentists learn to manage outcomes and responses to their service. “People use search engines now to research their health issues and are more aware than ever of whether they’re getting good value and quality care. And people are going to post a review online, something that already happens in the US.” Dr Surace recommends dentists look ahead to have a vision of their practice and how they want to be perceived by patients.

This “vision” of dentistry is certainly one that’s set to evolve as dentists become more active in the public health debate. “Great to see the mouth finally being accepted as part of the body,” wrote leading nutritionist Rosemary Stanton last year when the government announced it would be injecting $4.5b into a public Dental Health scheme. “Imagine the outcry if we excluded foot or arm injuries or problems with ears from Medicare,” she said. “It’s this growing awareness of the importance of good oral health that is also going to play a large part in the future.”

Professor Chris Peck, Dean of the School of Dentistry, University of Sydney, echoes recommendations by the National Advisory Council on Dental Health’s final report in last December that “the system adopt a population oral health approach which includes preventive strategies”. Peck concurs: “If you’re looking at the next 10 years, I think we’re going to see a greater focus on preventive practice… Dentists working with other oral health professionals, as well as nurses, physicians, pharmacists, physiotherapists—it’s this kind of thinking that will benefit the community.”

Dentist and social media
With the growth of social media, it’s imperative that dentists learn to manage outcomes and responses to their service.

For Professor Peck, this points to a shift in the way that dentists are becoming more a part of a systemic approach to overall health and wellbeing. “Dentistry is becoming much more mainstream and by that I mean that in the past it really hasn’t been part of the general health industry. Now, not only dentists are asking why, but also other health professionals… for example, with diabetes, a number of associations and foundations are keen on getting oral health expert advice now on what the interactions are, because there are interactions there. I think this is incredibly encouraging. I think we’re going to see advocacy groups as well as health professionals working much more closely together,” says Professor Peck.

Using a more team-based approach may be essential for not only increasing positive patient outcomes, but for also attacking the ever-threatening fiscal bottom line. “Dentistry is about a $7 billion industry in Australia and it’s growing. It’s just not sustainable,” says Professor Peck. “When you consider that the majority of dental diseases are preventable, then let’s see a focus on prevention and research.”

It all points to a new kind of dental professional, one who’s willing to embrace change on all fronts, but at the same time remain patient-centred. Adaptation is the key. “I still see a strong place for small practices,” says Professor Peck. “They’re the ones who are going to be geographically co-located [with medical practitioners]. It’s expensive to build a dental practice but sharing premises where you have clinical facilities for health professionals really makes sense.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Good to see that technology is changing face of dental education and new aspirants are getting more chance to learn from dental forums, blogs and online dental CE courses .
    I think it is a forward step taken to motivate dentist, very appreciative.
    It was very informative and helpful
    Thank You

  2. Good to see that technology is changing face of dental education and new aspirants are getting more chance to learn from dental forums, blogs and online dental CE courses .
    I think it is a forward step taken to motivate students, very appreciative.
    It was very informative and helpful
    Thank You

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