2018 in Review: Free Education for All… Well, Not Exactly

One of the most groundbreaking news stories in the medical field this year was the decision of New York University (NYU) to offer education at the NYU Medical School free of charge for students, regardless of merit or need. NYU raised $450 million of an estimated $600 million to meet this goal and is continuing to fundraise through charitable donations until it receives the necessary funding to sustain the program. NYU’s offer is a meaningful step forward in the higher learning community to make education more affordable, and one we hope to see medical schools across the United States follow suit.

Unfortunately, the offer is not transferable to the NYU College of Dentistry. Dental school students face the steep costs associated with dental equipment on top of their tuition. The average graduating dental student faces more than $280,000 of debt after completing their studies, and this fee does not include the cost of an undergraduate degree. The hefty price tag of dental education is due to the fact that dental schools are responsible for providing their students with expensive materials including treatment operatories, surgical suites, centralized sterilization units and specialized equipment that each individually cost thousands of dollars. On the other hand, medical schools do not need to recreate a clinical environment, as they can borrow an existing space like a hospital. Additionally, dental schools play a role in the oral health safety net, which provides more than 3 million dental visits to many individuals who cannot afford to pay for their care. Much of this funding comes directly from the students – hence the steep student loans dental students face.

This debt follows dental practitioners for many years after they complete their education. Due to student loans, graduating dentists rarely have the finances to buy a practice off of a retiring dentist, and instead, must work in group dental practices to save up enough money to open up their own facility. In fact, it takes dental students roughly 20 years to pay off their debt, limiting their ability to start their own practice years after graduating, ultimately delaying their ability to generate a substantial income.

Today, baby boomer dentists are retiring later in their careers than we have seen in previous generations. When facing retirement, dentists have two choices: they can invest in better technologies that will help generate revenues and increase resale value, or they can fold their practice.

Dental Practices: Invest, Invest, Invest

Due to the nature of dental debt and the lack of young dentists with enough capital to buy a practice, the market for selling a practice is much tighter than it once was. While retiring dentists may not see the value in upgrading various aspects of their practice to reflect new developments and technologies, as they might feel that they will not have a chance to recoup their costs, this failure to upgrade may cause their practice to be viewed unfavorably. There is greater competition in dentistry than ever before, and dentists need to work harder to stay relevant and valuable to patients. New doctors are looking to purchase practices that are on the cutting edge and using the latest technologies, so practices that fail to adapt will not be as attractive to investors looking to purchase a practice, and may be passed over in favor of more technologically savvy practices.

While this may seem like a hassle for dentists looking to sell their practice, it actually represents a great opportunity to make their practice more enticing to buyers and patients alike. Today’s patients value five things during their trip to the dentist including paying less, looking fantastic, getting multiple procedures done in one office, getting their dental treatment fast, and having no pain. At one point, these requests would have been impossible to fulfill, but with the advances in general dentistry, practices are now able to meet these needs. Patients have these expectations when going to the dentist, and if they are not met, they will leave their appointment feeling dissatisfied and go find another dentist.

While dental students should not expect free tuition anytime soon, if they understand the landscape that they are going to be entering, they can set themselves up for success. Staying up to speed on the latest technologies and treatments – and joining practices that have this philosophy – is important for new and veteran dentists to keep in mind to ensure that they always remain valuable and respond to the demands of their patients and the industry.

Samuel Low, D.D.S., M.S., M.Ed., chief dental officer at BIOLASE, the global leader in dental lasers. Dr. Low brings 30 years of private practice experience in dentistry, including periodontics and implant placement.

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