Dental Tribune America

Dentists’ earnings slumped in 2020

By Jeremy Booth, Dental Tribune International
October 07, 2021

CHICAGO, U.S.: New research from the American Dental Association (ADA) Health Policy Institute (HPI) shows that the average net earnings of general practitioner (GP) dentists in the U.S. fell by 17.9% in 2020 compared with 2019. In a recent webinar, Dr. Marko Vujicic, chief economist and vice president at HPI, explained that the fall in net income had been significantly higher for women and older dentists.

In a webinar on Sept. 2, Vujicic explored the findings of a September report from HPI which looked specifically at dentist earnings. He explained that the report sought to measure the recovery of U.S. dentistry from the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and to quantify the impact of the pandemic on the net earnings of dental professionals.

Based on annual survey data that was nationally representative of U.S. dentists and adjusted for inflation, the report found that the average net income for GP dentists in the U.S. declined by 17.9% in 2020 compared with 2019. Specialist dentists experienced a smaller decrease (6.9%) in their earnings, and they also worked more hours than their GP colleagues.

Female GP dentists experienced a significantly larger decrease in both their income and the hours they worked in 2020 compared with male colleagues. “This to me is another data point showing that the pandemic has really affected peoples’ professional lives and job situations very differently by gender, and our data is no exception,” Vujicic commented.

We certainly have seen professional women’s careers be disrupted to a much bigger extent than [those of their] male colleagues”

Vujicic explained that the net earnings of female GP dentists declined on average by 26.6%, compared with 15.0% for their male counterparts. Older dentists also experienced a larger decline in net earnings. The report found that GP dentists under the age of 40 experienced a 10.3% decline, that those aged between 40 and 64 experienced an 18.0% decline and that those aged 65 or older saw their net income fall by close to one-third (27.5%).

It was observed that the number of hours worked in the dental clinic correlated with net income levels. On average, the work hours of GP dentists declined by 16.6% in 2020, and the work hours of specialist dentists declined by 11.7%.

A larger decline in hours worked was observed for female GP dentists and older practitioners. Female GP dentists worked 22.1% fewer hours in 2020, whereas their male counterparts worked 14.5% fewer hours. Older dentists worked 21.0% fewer hours, whereas their colleagues younger than 40 worked 13.2% fewer hours.

Vujicic said that, in early 2020 when most dental clinics were only treating emergency cases, GP dentists had worked an average of 11 hours per week, and specialists had worked an average of 12 hours per week.

Pandemic challenges preventing dental clinics from seeing more patients

At close to 90% of pre-pandemic levels by mid-August this year, Vujicic said that patient volume at U.S. dental clinics had reached a new high in its recovery from the pandemic. He said that, whereas this was encouraging news, the HPI research sought to identify the factors that were limiting practices from exceeding the 90% recovery rate. HPI identified three main reasons. The main factor was staffing shortages, he said, followed by the COVID-19 protocols that were in place in order to limit transmission of the virus. The third most prominent factor that was limiting further recovery in patient volumes was the dental patients themselves. Vujicic commented that a continued, gradual increase in patients returning to dental clinics was being observed.

A big thing that is emerging in the data is the issue of recruitment challenges,” Vujicic emphasized. He said that HPI data showed that a serious recruitment drive was taking place—particularly in the search for dental hygienists and dental assistants. However, of the approximately one-third of practices that were recruiting hygienists or assistants, 90% had described the process as being extremely or very challenging.

When asked whether the current benchmark of 90% of pre-pandemic patient volumes would be the “new normal”, Vujicic said the three main factors that HPI had identified as limiting patient volume growth were unlikely to change in the near future. “I would say, in the short term, I expect us to hover out around 90% or [around a percentage that is] in the low 90s.” He added, however, that he did expect the 90% threshold to be surpassed eventually. “I certainly don’t see that as a long-term ‘new normal’ […] but in the next three to six months, I think so,” he explained.

One attendee asked whether the net income drop for women was related to childcare, and Vujicic replied that there were important questions that needed answering from within the dental community. He said that, whereas HPI data showed that the majority of dentists were back at work, the impact on labor supply persisted and differed by gender. He said that the literature showed that providing childcare and care for other family members had disproportionately affected women in many sectors. “We certainly have seen professional women’s careers be disrupted to a much bigger extent than [those of their] male colleagues,” he said.

The HPI report, titled How Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Dentist Earnings?, and the webinar of the same name, can be accessed on the ADA website.

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