Graduates coming out of South Carolina’s only dental school are motivated to care for the under-served and under-privileged, but they can be stymied by the heavy burden of student debt, according to one of the state’s most prominent dentists.
But Dr. W. Carter Brown, an adjunct professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, is generally upbeat about the future of dentistry, and the number of graduates, both in the state and nationally.
There are currently about 2,200 patients per dentist in the country, and that figure has remained steady for some time, Brown told Palmetto Business Daily.
And dentists are becoming more efficient, which allows them to see more patients, Brown, a former president of the Association of General Dentistry, said.
Some concerns have been raised about the lack of dentists serving low-income patients, particularly in rural areas.
But any problems in that area have little to do with students not wanting to care for the under-served, Brown said.
“Students are very cognizant at the thought of caring about the under-served,” Brown said. “They do an enormous amount of mission work, free dental, and not trying to make money. They love to do that stuff.”
But Brown said the burden of debt dissuades students from joining or opening practices where most of the patients are on Medicaid. He suggested a debt-forgiveness program that would be a “win win” for the state and the country.
“It is not a true statement that students do not want to serve the underprivileged,” Brown said. “It is excellent in South Carolina, where they have tremendous desire to take care of everyone, and most stay here.”
Brown was a pioneer in organizing dental access days, hugely popular events at which dozens of dentists treated hundreds of patients for free.
Mike Peters, of KOS Services, which manages the back-office functions for the Dental Dreams chain of practices, said there remains an issue with more demand than supply, particularly for low-income patients, and those living in rural areas.
Dental Dreams, which has three clinics in South Carolina, specializes in treating low-income patients, particularly those on Medicaid.
Many graduates "do not come from areas that are most lacking in dental resources and therefore need to be encouraged to pursue opportunities where the need is greatest," Peters told Palmetto Business Daily.
But Dental Dreams practices can compete for graduates because they offer attractive compensation, Peters said.
"We work hard in our recruitment of dental school students to help them gain an appreciation that with a practice like ours they can earn attractive compensation, maintain a healthy work/life balance and also serve a community that is in need of high quality dental providers," said Peters. "Working for a practice that serves Medicaid patients can check all the boxes."
But there are many who do for “altruistic motivations,” or they want to return to their communities.
“There is an opportunity to serve the community that is in need, particularly children,” Peters said.
Peters said Dental Dreams has managed to create a model that provides high-quality care, yet can compete at or above the market level on compensation. In addition, there is a ”big entity” supporting the practices, so services are always in demand.
“The biggest reason we are able to survive in these communities is how we operate our practices,” Peters said. “We are structured, run like a business with a maximum quality of care at relatively low cost.”
Dental Dreams' typical office has four doctors and high-quality managers, and schedules are never empty, Peters said.