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People Aren’t Going To The Dentist — & What That Means For The Future of Dental

By Dr. Derek Giddon DDS

Dentistry seems like a future-proof industry: no matter how advanced our tech gets, the humans who use it will still get cavities. So it may be surprising to learn that, actually, people are going to the dentist less and less. And that’s a big problem. According to the Health Policy Industry and the American Dental Association, the rate of working-age adults who visit the dentist is in steady decline. In the decade between 2002 - 2012, about ⅛ fewer people were going to the dentist, and the trend continues generally downward.

The reason for this decline is clear: cost. In fact, ADA surveys show dental care has the highest levels of cost barrier compared to other health care services, including prescription drugs and medical care. The rate of people who report not visiting the dentist due to cost is nearly twice the amount as those getting eyeglasses and vision care. But much of the cost barrier may be a misperception — while fewer of us are going to the dentist, studies show that it’s getting more and more affordable for working-age adults and children. So it’s possible that a lot of us feel that going to the dentist will be too expensive, which scares us away whether it’s true or not. Another factor is the difficulty of navigating insurance coverage, especially for millenials, who report being confused and wanting a simpler option for getting dental care.

Dentists are feeling the direct effects of this decline, and most dentists’ earnings have still not recovered from the 2008 recession. In response, the industry is starting to change, hoping to get people back in the dentist chair.

Some trends have crystalized in recent years: the industry is moving away from provider-centric, out-of-pocket blind models, towards a patient-centric ethos with transparency about what you’ll pay. Dentists are seeing a rise in people treating medical care and insurance like any other consumer product: shopping around for what proactively fits their budget and needs, instead of accepting a blanket approach and crossing their fingers when they get a cavity.

So what does the future of dental care look like for a patient? It could look like Smylen, an alternative to dental insurance with an easy-to-use app that makes booking dental care feel as easy as ordering food from Seamless. The colorful platform lets people compare upfront prices for everything from teeth whitening to braces, as well as seeing patient reviews and map how long it will take them to get to the dentist. Employers can sponsor their employees’ Smylen membership, letting them shop around for dental care and make their own decisions. Or, the future of dentistry could look like Tend, a customer experience-oriented dental practice with a series of locations across New York, each complete with a millennial-friendly mid-century-modern aesthetic, your choice of Netflix, and the promise that going to the dentist will feel like being at a spa.

No matter what, it’s clear that when it comes to dental care something’s gotta give. Dentists who can’t adapt may continue to see their income decline, while competition increases, with more students entering dental school than ever before. And employers are looking for new ways to give their employees dental benefits they’ll actually use. The future of dental care hangs not on technological advances or medical breakthroughs, but on creative business decisions and a popular perception shift strong enough to reverse our stereotypical fear of the dentist chair.

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