How to Navigate the Evolving Dental Industry: Advice for New & Transitioning Dentists

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In collaboration with three seasoned dentists who are leaders in their field and members of various esteemed leadership organizations, we present a breakdown of the pivotal shifts influencing the dental industry and how to navigate them for a fulfilling and fruitful career in dentistry.

Dr. John  Zalesky, DMD, MBS, FICOI, FAGD, divides his time between his private practice in Colorado and teaching part-time at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. He has been in practice for over a decade.

Dr. Foroud Hakim, DDS, MBA, divides his time between his private practice in California and teaching at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry at the University of the Pacific. He has been in practice since 1992.

Dr. Naana Mensah, DDS, has been practicing since 2017 and is currently building her own practice set to open in June 2024.

Current Trends

Today’s dental industry is not the same industry as a decade ago—not even the same as five years ago. With changes to practice structure and dental education and lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to contend with, understanding the current dental landscape is essential for the success of new dentists or dentists looking to make a change in career direction.

Perhaps the most significant shift in the dental industry over the last few years is the continued increase in DSOs and corporate dentistry practices and a plateauing number of private practices in operation.

“I think this rise in corporate dentistry was expected. I teach at a dental school [Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry] and see more students going corporate after graduating,” Dr. Foroud Hakim, shared. “And I believe DSOs will keep growing, but that there is room for both DSOs and private practices. Everything moves through a cycle.”

That cycle, however, may have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating challenges such as staffing shortages and increased overhead costs. Because of their size, DSOs wield greater leverage to recruit and negotiate lower costs, which in turn can make a DSO more appealing and feel like a safer choice for early career dental professionals.

Furthermore, another industry shift facing dentists today is the decrease in insurance reimbursements and increase in the insurance companies’ involvement in treatment recommendations. Dr. John Zalesky explained his thoughts on this topic.

“We need to consider that insurance companies want to dictate treatment but that it’s not always in the best interest of the patient,” he explained, “Finding solutions other than traditional insurance can help us treat patients with quality care comprehensively.”

As with other costs, DSOs tend to have more negotiating power with insurance companies or have the financial ability to absorb reduced reimbursement rates. Conversely, private practices often more acutely feel the effects of reduced reimbursement, which has led to more private practices setting up patient payment or membership plans to better engage patients in their treatment.

Dr. Naana Mensah is opening a private practice this summer, and she sees how essential in-house membership plans are for a growing number of dental patients. “My practice will definitely have one,” she said, “Gone are the days of everyone having dental insurance through their employers. We need plans like these to fill the gap for uninsured patients to ensure they have an equal opportunity to receive needed care.”

Dr. Zalesky also recognizes the vital role these plans can play in a dental office and noted that from his own experience cancellations are diminished from patients on membership plans because they are more invested in their care up front.

One important consideration regarding dental insurance, though, is understanding it will not go away completely. Remaining aware of insurance options and what they can and cannot provide a practice and patients is still essential.

Dr. Hakim anticipates a shift toward more favorable negotiation terms in the future. “As more private practices drop insurance it will lead to some insurance companies coming back around and being more willing to negotiate,” he explained. “Insurance companies need the dentists, and at some point, everything will balance out.”

Additionally, the rise of AI technology will forever change dental care.  While AI in dentistry is still in its early stages, it promises streamlined diagnosis, treatment planning, and procedures. It is critical that all dental professionals understand AI technology and how to use it in their practice to remain relevant.

“AI technology in dentistry will help dentistry catch up to the medical field in terms of patient care,” Dr. Zalesky said. “It will make diagnosis and treatment more cut and dry and reduce ‘wait and see’ scenarios, which will in turn hopefully eliminate some of the need for emergency or catastrophic care.”

These industry dynamics make one thing clear: dental professionals cannot be complacent if they want to be successful.

Patient-Centric Dentistry

Drs. Zalesky, Hakim and Mensah all advocate proactive approaches for adapting to industry shifts and emphasized these overarching strategies:

  • Stay on top of and invest in practice technology.
  • Learn how to market yourself/your practice effectively and then do so.
  • Continue to pursue educational opportunities to ensure you offer the highest level of patient care and prove procedural capabilities

For Dr. Zalesky, his focus during industry shifts centers around what he can do to provide the absolute best patient care possible. If his practice investments have that as their end goal, he believes they will help him navigate any changes he might face.

“For me I’m focusing on being able to offer as much as possible ‘in house’,” he shared. “This means, for example, investing in a 3D printer for quicker treatment turnaround and utilizing advanced technology like lasers to make treatment less invasive and painful for patients.”

Dr. Hakim, who is moving practice locations later this year, is also keeping a narrow focus on providing exceptional patient care to ensure his practice can meet the challenges posed by industry changes.

“As dental professionals we must look to the horizon—we can’t just keep our heads down,” he shared. “To mitigate the effects of industry changes I’ve been focusing on marketing my practice digitally, adding new services, and keeping up with CE and technology updates, particularly AI driven imaging technology. People not keeping up will be exposed, and their patients will leave for better care.”

Dr. Mensah has taken this patient-centric approach to managing industry shifts even further, by building a boutique style practice that will provide an experience that goes beyond dental care.

“I want coming to an appointment to be easy for my patients—it should not feel like an interruption to their day,” she explained. “With amenities over and above a traditional dental practice, like an iPad bar for people who want to work while they wait, my practice will be a calming place that offers a custom experience for each patient.”

Along with cultivating a specific atmosphere for her patients, Dr. Mensah is also making it a priority to market herself and her practice—both digitally and by being an active member in her community.

So, what does this mean for newly graduated dentists or dentists in a transitional phase?

Education is Key to Success for New Dental Grads

People will always need dental care; that is a fact of life. But in today’s industry, how to get the most out of your dental career isn’t as clear cut as it used to be. With more options for how to practice (private practice, small to mid-sized DSOs, or large groups) and patients’ ability to research where and who to go to for care, you need to know what direction you want your career to take and how to set yourself apart from other dental professionals.

Graduating from dental school, while an immense undertaking, is just the beginning of a thorough dental education.

“Often after graduation new dentists don’t know what they don’t know,” Dr. Zalesky said. “They need some form of continuing education to ensure they have the skills they need to practice at a high level. This could take the form of a residency, which I did, where they are paid to continue learning more procedures and how to care for patients in a much more hands-on way than at dental school. Without enough training and education your work simply won’t be as good as it needs to be to stand out in today’s dental market.”

Dr. Hakim echoes these thoughts when giving his own take on how new dentists can excel in their profession amidst current industry shifts.

“After teaching for 33 years, I can see today’s students need more preparation after graduation to truly practice safely. Finding additional learning opportunities to practice skills will help them make measured mistakes they can learn from and in turn be able provide quality patient care,” he shared. “Recent grads and new dentists in general just need to be willing to put in the time and effort. You can’t succeed without it.”

Dr. Mensah also believes that creating a solid foundation based on continuing education and investing in yourself is necessary for today’s dentists. But she also believes that understanding what you want out of your career and where you fit into the industry is an important piece of the success puzzle.

“You need to do research on the industry, so you know where you best fit in,” she said. “Understand if you want full control over your practice and to be a business owner, including all the responsibility that comes with it, or if you’d prefer to focus solely on providing dental care—this will help determine if private practice or a DSO is a better fit for you.”

Taking stock of where you see yourself within the industry is essential to starting your career on the right foot—or helps you know how to pivot if you feel where you’re currently practicing is no longer a good fit for you.

Once you determine the direction you want to go, continually taking advantage of educational opportunities and investing in yourself will ultimately drive your success. If you stop learning and growing, you will be outpaced by other dental professionals who put in the work to keep rising to the next level.

One way to help you do this is to find a mentor (or mentors) who can help guide you as you grow in your career.

“Finding a mentor was crucial to my career path and getting me to where I am today,” Dr. Zalesky shared.

However you choose to continue your education and advance your skills, that will be critical to excelling in your career, whatever path it takes. Take CE courses, join industry organizations, network with other dental professionals, stay on top of technological advances, and—most importantly—always keep patient care and experience at the forefront of your work.

Dr. Hakim sums it up nicely.

“It really comes down to offering exceptional customer service and patient care, understanding the insurance game, and knowing how to market yourself.”

If you would like to know more about the resources available to you, get to connected with industry leaders or save on your dental supply costs, Dental City can help.  Contact Jordan Lorenz at 800-353-9595 x 167 or