Dentists: Smiling in the Face of Recession

Dentists: Smiling in the Face of Recession

The one guy is 63-years old, just lost his job at a health insurer, and is afraid he’ll never find another one again. The other has three kids, one in college, and lost his construction job. The stress caused them to both grind their canines and molars. So they both wound up in the office of Dr. Woody Oakes, a dentist from New Albany, Indiana, with a fractured tooth. “You do see that — someone lost their job, and they come in with their jaws clenched,” says Oakes, who is also the editor of The Profitable Dentist magazine. “You can fracture your teeth when you do that.”

There’s at least one profession for which the recession might not bite: dentistry. According to Sageworks, a firm that tracks private company financial performance, dentist’s offices had higher profit margins than any other industry in 2008. With average profit margins at 17%, dentistry outpaced accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services, legal services, and mining support services among the top five performing professions in ’08. Dental margins rose about 1.5% from 2007, according to Sageworks.

What could be keeping dentistry strong during this recession Sure, tooth grinding and nervous eating habits — I’m going to chomp on chocolate as an escape — may be driving traffic to the drill. But economic forces are more likely responsible. Dentists note that patients who receive no or limited insurance tend to skip cleanings and other dental maintenance during tough times as they look to save a few bucks. But dentists pick up even more revenue later on. Patients who’ve skipped check-ups now have achy teeth, and have no choice but to undergo a more expensive procedure. “It’s human nature to say, “I can’t afford that right now,” says Dr. Lawrence Spindel, a dentist in New York City. “And if it doesn’t hurt, I don’t have a problem. Then all of a sudden you need a root canal.”

At the same time, insured patients want to hit the chair while they’re still lucky enough to have the insurance. “We’re seeing that a lot of folks are fearful of losing their jobs,” says Rick Willeford, founder and president of the Academy of Dental CPAs, whose members provide accounting and tax prep work for some 7,000 dentists across the country. “So they want to use their benefits. That has helped keep revenues strong.” Last spring Spindel, who had his best year ever in 2008, said he saw a “mini-boomlet” in these types of cases. “People know that if they’re going to lose their job, they damn well better use their dental insurance,” Spindel says. “They say, ‘do as much as you can do, and you need to do it within 30 days!'”
Read “How to Know When the Economy is Turning Up.”
Read “The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.”