An open letter to the class of 2020 from a dental school faculty member

Dental students,

Photo of Dr. Syrbu
Dr. Syrbu
By now I’m willing to bet that each and every one of you have been affected to some extent by the current events associated with COVID-19. If your dental school is anything like ours, your instructional courses have been moved to online platforms, student clinics have been shut down for the foreseeable future, and if boards were scheduled in late March, April, or May, they’ve been postponed but not necessarily re-scheduled. It’s probably not how you thought your last quater in dental school would go. It’s not how we planned it either. We are all working on a contingency plan for the very real possibility that clinics may not reopen this academic year. While we may come up with slightly different solutions, rest assured we all want you to graduate as much as you do.

But to be quite honest, these could be the smallest fish we fry. They will get figured out one way or another. It is my hope that residencies, positions in public health, academics, and the military will proceed as planned. My bigger concern is what happens after graduation for the largest cohort of graduates – those that planned to enter private practice.

If you’ve been following along, you know that the recommendation was made for offices nationwide to close their doors to all elective treatment for at least three weeks. Some states have even mandated it for varying periods of time, citing the safety of the public as well as your staff, and as an effort to preserve the supply of PPE, as hospitals nationwide are running low. While entirely necessary, the microeconomics of this do not bode well for many practices, and in fact a significant number of offices are worried about surviving the storm. Immediately downstream for some of you, associateships will fall through. While dentistry is usually considered a safe career, it can be tied to the economy at large. During times when people have less discretionary income, they may not put what they do have into elective dental care. It will take time to recover from this, so the financial effects of what we are currently experiencing can be long-lasting. All of which, again, doesn’t paint a pretty picture for new grads about to enter the workforce. It’s an extremely unsettling time.

I can’t speak for your personal situations. Some are set to graduate with zero debt while others will soon inherit six figures. Some were considering purchasing an office, while others have signed employment agreements which are now in jeopardy. I suspect the more populated and affected the practice location, the more difficult it may be for a new associate. At first. Rest assured I predict the industry and most individual practices will bounce back in time. I simply aim to provide you with a thought or opinion, and hope that you keep yourself informed of your own situation as well as the industry at large. Again, no one has the answers. We’re all trying to figure it out.

So, what can you do? Of course, practice social distancing and keep yourself informed. Follow the news, read the blogs, and listen to the podcasts. Ask dentists and dental offices how they are managing. Soon enough you may be in the position to make similar decisions for your practice. The more you know now, the more prepared you will find yourself later on. Consider your repayment strategy for student loans. If necessary, formulate a “Plan B”. And even a “Plan C”. It may help to find solace in graduating during one of the worst economies in recent history; because as history also shows, things can and do improve.

One thing I think we can all individually and collectively do to make an impact… help #spreadtheword and #flattenthecurve. Be vocal, and practice what you preach. Share information and educate your colleagues, friends and families, everyone in your social networks. Disseminate news articles, maps, diagrams, cartoons, memes, etc. One fact in all of this is that the quicker we can contain and eliminate the spread of the virus, the quicker your future office, other offices, the dental industry, the economy, and the health of the nation can reach stability and begin the long haul towards normalcy. We can do this, but we have to do it together.

        John Syrbu, DDS
        Clinical Assistant Professor
        University of Iowa College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics
        Iowa City, IA 52242

Editor's note: This message and viewpoints are solely those of the author and do not reflect or are not endorsed by the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, dental clinics or the University of Iowa.