It looks like it’s a good time to be a dentist. US News & World Report has named dentistry the top healthcare profession in the country and number two overall behind software development. Plus, orthodontists came in fifth on the full list, oral and maxillofacial surgeons got the eighth place nod, prosthodontists landed in the sixteenth slot, and dental hygienists were right behind at 17. Dental assistants cracked the chart as well at number 98.
US News & World Report identified professions by analyzing data on the jobs that had the largest projected number of openings through 2026, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The news agency then ranked these choices based on a variety of criteria, including median salary, employment rate, 10-year growth, future job prospects, stress level, and work-life balance.
“Dentistry is a fulfilling and wonderful profession for many reasons. It encompasses science, technology, artistry, and the highest level of research,” said Eli Eliav, DMD, PhD, vice dean of oral health at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “The ability to help patients and improve the quality of their lives is very gratifying. The profession provides ample room to be challenged and grow as general dentists and specialists.”
“I think the agreeable work-life balance says more about individuals placing this important part of their and their families’ well-being high on a priority list—something I find personally very satisfying,” said Ronnie Myers, DDS, MS, dean of the Touro College of Dental Medicine. “This is also inherently seen in applications and acceptances to dental schools, where 50% are women who have often said that the life balances afforded by the profession are very appealing.”
Salary and Other Benefits
Dentists saw a median salary of $153,900 and an average salary of $173,860 in 2016. The best paid made more than $208,000, while the lowest paid earned less than $67,690. Also, salaries have increased each year since 2010. Dentists in Peabody, Mass, made the most with $283,550, while dentists in Delaware topped the chart at $236,130. Plus, dentists at residential facilities for the disabled, mentally ill, and addicted made the most at $184,620.
While dentistry has average levels of upward mobility and stress, due to the work environment and complexities of the job’s responsibilities, it offers above average flexibility. Most dentists work full time, but evenings and weekends often are options for putting in the hours. Dentists also can manage the kind of work they do, focusing on seeing many patients briefly or fewer patients for longer visits, based on the approach they prefer.
“Dentistry has risen to become one of the top professional careers,” said Rick Leppo, DMD, a practicing general dentist in Columbia, Ill. “The autonomy to customize your practice hours and procedures differentiates dentistry from other medical professions.”
Currently, dentists have a 0.4% unemployment rate. Looking ahead, BLS predicts employment growth of 17.5% through 2026, with 23,200 new openings. By comparison, health diagnosing and treating practitioner positions in general will see 16% growth through the same period. BLS believes more dentists will be needed for services that are growing more popular such as complicated dental work like dental implants or bridges and aesthetics like teeth whitening.
“Technology is the backbone to dentistry, allowing us to become more efficient and deliver high-quality care to our patients,” said Leppo. “It allows surgical procedures to be less invasive, increasing precision and decreasing the healing duration. New imaging and printing technology has enabled providers to fabricate and deliver restorations in house and in less time.”
“You get to be really creative. There are many ways to design a case, and there is a real artistic portion of the work,” said Charlie Zasso, DDS, MBA, chief clinical officer of Affordable Dentures & Implants. “You get to be a scientist as well and use data and STEM knowledge to solve patient problems while working with people all day long. Dentistry is really a people business with creative and scientific aspects.”
Specialists may be further down the list, but they still are doing well. Orthodontists and oral and maxillofacial surgeons both have a median salary of $208,000, while prosthodontists have a median salary of $126,000. All three specialties have a 0.4% unemployment rate like general dentists and expected growth of 17%, with 1,100 new openings for orthodontists, 1,200 for oral and maxillofacial surgeons, and 200 for prosthodontists.
The intangibles are a different story. US News & World Report notes that orthodontists have more flexibility and less stress for a great work-life balance. Plus, their work is meaningful without the pressure of the life and death scenarios found in other healthcare positions. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons and prosthodontists, though, have more stress and less flexibility. Their work also often involves complex treatment or emergency situations.
Still, many dentists overall have a favorable view of their profession. In addition to the factors cited by US News & World Report, dentists value the relationships that they form with their patients, the esteemed role that dentistry holds in society, the autonomy of managing both patient care and the business aspects of their practices, the constant opportunities to learn about new clinical developments, and the satisfaction of helping those who need it.
“Dentistry is most definitely a top job. The dentist-patient relationship is unique because of the immediate and definitive satisfaction provided by the dentist and realized by the patient when compared with other service professions where the outcomes and results are, in many instances, more nebulous and delayed,” said Marvin H. Berman, DDS, a pediatric dentist with a career spanning more than five decades.
“At this point in time, dentistry is still a great profession. The ability to help your fellow man and contribute meaningfully to your community remains a deeply fulfilling aspect of this profession. It’s an ever-evolving field, keeping it fresh for the dentist while demanding commitment to continued education,” said Dr. Gigi Meinecke, founder and principal of Facial Anatomy for Comprehensive Aesthetic Seminars.
“It is one of the few remaining occupations in healthcare wherein the practitioner can be truly self-employed. One of the principal determinants that led me to leave academics and enter private practice, 31 years ago and counting, was the desire for self-determination. I have the opportunity, and I do consider it to be an opportunity rather than a burden, to make all of the key decisions myself in my practice,” said Brien Harvey, DDS, MS, chair of the board at Delta Dental of Arizona and a practicing periodontist in Tucson.
“What steps need to be taken in order to provide the best possible patient service and to gain excellent clinical outcomes—I use the word ‘unparalleled’ in our office vision statement—every day for every patient? What materials do we use? What is the focus of our practice in terms of treatments offered and how these treatments are delivered?” said Harvey. “It is genuinely fun to help our patients reach their goals in terms of oral health and function and aesthetics.”
However, today’s dentists have many concerns about where the profession is going. Technology may improve care, but keeping up with it is a challenge. It also sometimes puts additional distance between the dentist and the patient. Changing economics and policies muddy the future too, with the increased debt that dental school students graduate carry and the ongoing debate over insurance coverage.
“According to the American Dental Education Association, based on a 2017 survey, the average student loan debt for a graduating dentist is now more than $287,000. That type of debt load can negatively impact career choices for graduating dentists, forcing them to take the job with the best starting salary rather than finding a practice setting that best fits their vision and values,” said Harvey.
“The government, along with other well-intentioned groups, seek to change the current construct of dentistry and its delivery of care,” said Meinecke. “The future of dentistry at this time is uncertain, and along with it, the oral health of a nation. Let’s hope that those who best understand the profession from the inside have the final word on how patients should be treated, and not bureaucrats or endowed think or fact tanks.
One of the chief concerns dentists have today is the rise of dental service organizations (DSOs). While they account for less than 10% of the overall marketplace, the number of large dental practices has grown by more than 25% in recent years, according to the ADA. As debt prevents students from opening their own practices, and as current practices look for ways to reduce overhead, DSOs are becoming an attractive option—though not without concerns of their own.
“The large corporate setting certainly reduces the opportunity, or burden, to make the decisions that are requisite in running the business of a dental practice. Many dentists are happy to have a corporate entity manage the business so that they, the practitioners, can simply do the treatments. Other practitioners, and I hope it is obvious that I count myself in this portion of the dentist population, embrace dental practice management decisions in order to maintain complete control over the patient experience,” said Harvey.
“I worry that in the future, the precious personal relationship and communication between dentist and patient that is the hallmark of our profession becomes more distant, as it obviously has in medicine,” said Berman.
Despite these challenges, dentists remain positive about the future of the profession and the new developments that they are bound to see and, ultimately, use in their daily practice.
“We have many opportunities to improve patient care by continuing to train dentists to effectively treat the aging population and other patients with special needs,” said Eliav. “People are living longer, retaining more teeth, and are more medically complex. This presents opportunities for dentists and physicians to work more closely together and serve the patient more comprehensively.”
“Scientifically speaking, I’m most excited about stem-cell research, which can go a long way in preventing disease by unlocking genetic secrets,” said Berman. “Specifically, wouldn’t it be great if one day we have the ability to replace a damaged tooth with a duplicate spare?”
“You get to be a problem solver. You can get immediate gratification by fixing something right away or getting a patient out of pain or making them smile again. There are few careers where you can make an impact so quickly and consistently,” said Zasso. “If you like to solve problems, be creative, and work with your hands while using your brain as well, dentistry is a great career that can become a calling and a passion.”