HPI: Dental office employment declined in March

Recent data indicate employment in dental profession remains stagnant even as pandemic wanes

As COVID-19 cases decline and restrictions lift across the U.S., recovery of the workforce remains incomplete, according to research from the ADA Health Policy Institute.

More dentists are retiring and more dental hygienists are exiting the workforce, stalling the recovery, according to HPI.

“Throughout the U.S. economy we are seeing major ripple effects through the job market, often referred to as the Great Resignation,” said Marko Vujicic, Ph.D., ADA chief economist and vice president of HPI. “The whole health care sector is struggling with labor shortages, dentistry is no different.”

Dental offices lost 1,500 jobs from February to March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics report, which is based on a monthly survey of businesses across U.S. industries to estimate the number of employees. The job count includes full and part-time dentists and nondentist staff.

This decline from February to March was the first experienced by the dental sector since April 2020.

Stagnant employment in the dental industry can be partly attributed to the exit of dental hygienists from the workforce. According to the latest analysis by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the ADA Health Policy Institute, hygienist employment has declined since September 2020. About 5 percent of hygienists who had been working at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were unemployed as of August 2021. Dentists confirm that hygienists have left a considerable void in the dental workforce. In March 2022, one in three dentists were recruiting dental hygienists, and 92% indicated recruitment was extremely or very challenging, according to HPI data.

The departure of dental hygienists is largely voluntary, with some hygienists saying they have decided to retire from dental hygiene entirely. Others continue to cite workplace safety concerns and the inability to find sufficient childcare as reasons why they do not return. A study by DentalPost found that feeling underpaid is the most common reason for job dissatisfaction among dental hygienists.

The pause in job growth in the dental sector can also be attributed to dentists themselves. Retirements among dentists is on the rise for the first time in years. In 2021, 6,641 dentists over age 55 exited the workforce compared to 4,785 in 2017. It should be noted that dentists entering the workforce continue to outnumber dentists exiting the workforce and that the supply of dentists is expected to increase through 2040. Nevertheless, the increase in dentist retirements is likely contributing to job losses in the dental sector, according to HPI analysis.

Dentist-reported staffing shortages have resulted in an estimated 11% decrease in practice capacity. Also, the exit of older dentists from the workforce may accelerate the “de-aging” trend of the dentist population. Younger dentists tend to have different practice patterns than older dentists, such as less practice ownership and more affiliation with dental service organizations, according to HPI.