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Will there be too many dentists or not enough in the future and how will COVID-19 alter the dental workforce?

Will there be too many dentists in the future? Few questions elicit as much debate in the dental community. Forecasting whether a dental shortage or surplus is in store is complex, made no easier by different trends pointing in different directions. On one hand, factors signaling a potential shortage include the rising U.S. population, expanding dental insurance coverage and the ever-increasing need to provide care for millions living in dental shortage areas. 

On the other hand, trends indicating a potential surplus include improved overall oral health, skyrocketing dental school enrollments, and advancing technology that may reduce total dental visits and procedure time — or eliminate the need for the dentist entirely. Predicting the future of dentistry is by no means an exact science; rather, predictions are guided by several factors and trends.

Different dental researchers have different perspectives on the outlook of the profession, including the myriad evolving variables expected in the next several decades that may influence the need for dentists. 

And an entirely new question has emerged: How will COVID-19 alter the future of the dental workforce? Will it influence a potential medical school applicant to choose dentistry instead? Will it encourage a potential dental school applicant to adopt a nonhealth-related career? Will the pandemic create longstanding changes to practice operations? 

Analysis in “Projecting the Demand for Dental Care in 2040” by co-authors Richard J. Manski, DDS, MBA, PhD, and Chad D. Meyerhoefer, PhD, provides a more mixed prediction. The authors surmise that: 

1. Total dental visits will increase from 294 million in 2017 to 319 million in 2040. 

2. Dental visits per person will decrease from 0.92 in 2017 to 0.84 in 2040. 

3. The percentage of the population with a dental visit will rise from 41.9% in 2015 to 44.2% in 2040.

“Even in a post-COVID environment, the future for the dental profession is bright and will remain so,” said Manski. 

"However, for the next year or two, there will be challenges and troubled waters ahead that we must navigate. While it will be our responsibility to adopt new best practices to ensure the safety of patients, staff and ourselves, we will also need to adapt to changing patient perceptions and concerns. While the need for dentistry has not changed, we will experience a new equilibrium resulting from pent-up demand offset by patient apprehension. Additional attention to best practice management processes will be needed to optimize each patient encounter and to reassure patients.” 

Researchers will need to continue considering future supply and demand of dental services. But for now, general dentists — both practicing and aspiring — have plenty of challenges and opportunities to keep furthering the profession. Manski is optimistic.

“Even with the difficulties that we currently face, dentistry is a wonderful profession in which our colleagues are able to provide an important needed service, contribute to society in a meaningful way and live a very nice life,” he said.

Kelly Rehan is a freelance journalist based in Omaha, Nebraska. To comment on this article, email

by Kelly Rehan

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