The Changing Nature of Dentistry and Retiring

For the past eight years, the Association of Retiring Dentists (ARD) has been connecting with mature dentists as they move from private practice into their retiring years.   For the most part, dentists have been able to make the transition reasonably smoothly, although some experience challenges, and these challenges can be significant.

The character of dental practice has changed over the years. Until recently dental practice has been linear: education, practice, retirement. It was often a solo practice with a beginning, middle, and end.

For many years now, different forces have been shaping the character of dental practice.   Women make up about 50% of graduating dentists. Costs of dental education have skyrocketed, leaving some new dentists upward to a half million dollars in debt. Technology has created expensive equipment that in some cases is becoming a standard of care. Governmental regulations create layers of bureaucratic and administrative work creating expensive compliance challenges. Insurance companies are increasingly dictating fees that reduce profit margins. New materials and techniques are exploding, requiring virtually constant continuing education to keep current. Dental auxiliaries are being trained and allowed to perform procedures that previously could only be done by dentists. The solo practice is being squeezed.

What seems to be emerging is the concept of the Life Cycle of the dental practice. It is circular, rather than linear. It is group, rather than solo. It is constantly being refreshed as older dentists transition out and newer dentists transition in.

Indeed, the identity of dentists themselves is changing.   It used to be that the dentist’s name was the name of the practice. This contributed to a strong attachment of the dentist to his work, and made it emotionally difficult to leave. Now, more and more practices are named for a location, region or type of dentistry offered. Individual dentists can come and go with a quick change of stationery, and a slot on the sign.

Group practice with rotating ownership facilitates this lifecycle. Women can easily adjust hours as family needs change. New dentists have a nearly immediate source of income. More practitioners contribute to income, sharing costs and purchase and use of equipment. Hiring personnel to deal with administrative and regulatory mandates is easier in a group. The cost of supplies is reduced when purchased in larger amounts. Expanded function auxiliaries can more effectively be used. Computerized systems can manage the complexities of seemingly endless differences in insurance plans.

One of the most noticeable benefits of the life cycle concept is that it is easier for a dentist to begin practice and easier to transition out.   An older dentist can gradually reduce hours and days in the practice while learning how to use additional free time out of the office.   Staff remains constant and not dependent on the production of one dentist. Patients can continue to be seen in the same practice and meet newer dentists while at the same time still be treated by their older trusted dentist who they have seen perhaps since childhood. Exit from the practice can be gradual rather than sudden. This eases the shock of this stage in life.

The life cycle concept isn’t just hiring an associate at the end of a career and hoping to find a compatible successor; it is having a younger partner much earlier to share in and grow the practice. The practice cycle becomes complete when the older dentist mentors the younger one passing values and wisdom to a new generation.

The life cycle of a dentist doesn’t need to stop with the sale of the practice, but can continue as the retiring dentist finds new meaning in life. Meaning can come in volunteer work around the globe, teaching dentistry in schools, consulting, mentoring, or providing care for home-bound seniors. Meaning can also come with a small additional source of income through per diem work filling in for dentists who have a need for temporary coverage.

Of course, purpose can be found outside of dentistry, but why look elsewhere when so many gifts lie within our career experience. Retiring allows us the freedom to find our passion wherever that lies.


Neil S. Hiltunen, D.M.D., F.A.G.D., President,

Association of Retiring Dentists,

February 17, 2016

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