The Platinum Age is here, but what about your job?

April 1, 2002
The phone rang, and it was one of those callers who needed an obscure statistic.

By Mark Hartley

The phone rang, and it was one of those callers who needed an obscure statistic. I found the answer in a pile of data generated by Dental Economics. Afterwards, I browsed through the rest of the information and started writing some of it down. Although the data was collected in 2001, it was never published in Dental Economics. So you're getting the first look at it:

  • 74 percent of dentists reported difficulties in recruiting hygienists.
  • 62 percent reported difficulties in recruiting chairside assistants.
  • 84 percent said recruitment difficulties were based on "lack of qualified applicants."
  • 64 percent indicated they hired either one or no new staff members between May 1, 2000 and May 1, 2001.

    So, more than half of the dentists out there essentially have a hiring freeze in place. When they do go shopping for personnel, three out of four can't find a hygienist. Six out of 10 can't even find someone to sit by them chairside as an assistant. Eight out of 10 say the shopping is hard to accomplish because no one's good enough. So this "hiring freeze" referred to above apparently is not related to the recession; there's no hiring because there's no one to hire.

    Most of the dental hygienists reading this are probably scoffing at this suggestion for a variety of reasons. But the American Dental Association did announce in the December 10, 2001, issue of the ADA News that its recruitment program – "Something to Smile About – Careers in the Dental Profession" – will provide the resources to help dentists visit school districts and "promote dental and allied dental careers – especially dental assisting and dental hygiene."

    Now, let's add something else to the mix. Just about every author in every dental journal has been salivating about the profession's "Platinum Age," which supposedly will be in effect for the next 20 years. The primary reason cited for this tremendous cash flow into the pockets of dentists is that there are more dentists retiring than graduating from dental school.

    A secondary reason is fee-for-service policies. If there's a shortage of dentists, someone has reasoned, then fewer people will complain about ditching their "fringe benefit" of insurance coverage for dental treatment and paying cash upfront.

    The current crop of dentists who are considered to be the "gurus" of the profession are admired for being the type of guys who would say, "We're not a bunch of lemmings rushing out to sea to drown ourselves. Let's stop the nonsense!" On the other hand, they used to be "rebels" who wanted to change the "Establishment's" view of how dentistry is practiced. Without offending their sense of eloquence, the philosophy basically boils down to six words: Do less work (fewer patients) and charge more (higher fees).

    Well, that's probably everybody's goal in life. Why knock it? The "old" traditional doctors were getting too stressed out by "drill and fill," committing suicide, getting hooked on drugs, etc. The rebels said dentistry was a boring career, but they knew how to make it exciting again. (This revelation was a little surprising to me. Most of the traditional doctors I knew quietly and pleasantly earned their upper-middle-class status in life. They may have been a little too conservative for my taste, but, generally speaking, they were well-respected in their communities and seemed happy with their choices about life.) The point is that – in case you just woke up from a nap – these rebels are now the Establishment. The traditional formula has become: Fewer patients and increased cash flow.

    When hygienists gripe about the lack of professional autonomy in their profession, dentists often say, "Go to dental school. Become a dentist." It's the ultimate insult to preventive dentistry. These doctors are griping because they're not quite gadzillionaires yet. Am I the only one who has this retort on the tip of my tongue? Go to business school. Become a tycoon.

    What's the easiest way for a dental office to lighten up the workload? Chuck the paperwork and tell insurance companies to take a hike, along with any patients who don't want the full-service luxury treatment.

    I guess I'm just struggling with this concern that dentistry is clueless about its future manpower needs, and dental hygienists are stuck in the middle of this busy intersection, trying to avoid getting run over by drivers afflicted with road rage. Fewer dentists, inadequate staffs, and higher fees – how exactly do hygienists and American consumers benefit from the Platinum Age?