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LEIPZIG, Germany: When widespread lockdowns began to be implemented in order to curb the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the number of unemployed people in many countries increased rapidly. Dentistry was no exception, and most dental practices either shut down entirely or only provided care in an emergency context. Though a good number of practices have since reopened after the relaxing of certain restrictions, it remains unclear just how many dental professionals have ended their careers early as a result.
Back in June, research conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Centre for Ageing Better (CAB) found that 46% of UK residents between 50 and 60 years old believe that their financial situation will worsen over the coming year owing to the pandemic. Furthermore, only 39% of those in this demographic group who are currently unemployed or furloughed were confident that they will be employed at some point in the future and will not be faced with the prospect of an untimely retirement.
“These figures are deeply worrying,” said Dr Anna Dixon, chief executive at CAB, in an interview with The Guardian. “If this generation continues to be an afterthought in the coronavirus recovery, we will see a lost generation entering retirement in poorer health and worse financial circumstances than those before them,” she stated.
Problems existed in the UK prior to COVID-19
Though the UK stands as one of the countries hardest hit by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—many of its dentists remain in need of urgent financial support —the reality of the situation is that its dental industry was in trouble before the pandemic began. At least that is the opinion of Nigel Jones, the sales and marketing director of Practice Plan.
“I am not aware that any of our members have been motivated to retire early owing to COVID-19. Having said that, it would not be altogether surprising if that is the case for some dentists when you consider the results of our Dentistry Confidence Monitor Survey from last year, which showed that 24% of NHS dentists who didn’t see themselves operating in the NHS in five years’ time intended to retire earlier than planned,” Jones told Dental Tribune International (DTI).
In Jones’ view, the pandemic is likely to have accelerated many dentists’ plans to transition from the public sector into the private sphere. “It’s not inconceivable that, for dentists who were thinking along those lines already, COVID-19 will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I also suspect that some dentists may take the opportunity to retire from NHS dentistry and move into private dentistry, rather than retire from the profession completely,” he added.
The US bounces back quickly—or does it?
In the US, months of COVID-19-caused lockdown wreaked havoc across the country’s dental workforce, though in a recent interview with NBC News, Dr Marko Vujicic, chief economist and vice president of the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Health Policy Institute, claimed that the industry had proved to be extremely resilient during these unprecedented times.
According to Vujicic, a survey of ADA members found that, whereas only 3% of American dental practices were open for non-emergency procedures in April, this figure had skyrocketed to 97% by June. He estimated that only 1% of US-based dentists will end up selling their practices, filing for bankruptcy or retiring as a result of COVID-19.
Vujicic’s optimism is yet to be wholly borne out by recent data on dental activity in the US, however. As reported last month by DTI, a recent survey conducted by the Health Policy Institute itself showed that, by 29 June, 55.5% of open dental offices saw a reduced volume of patients. In addition, figures released last week by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis show that spending on dental services fell by 33.9% year on year in June 2020, according to the research and consulting organisation Altarum.
Between January and April of this year, there was an overall decrease of 7% in the US labour force participation rate
A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research further found that, between January and April of this year, there was an overall decrease of 7% in the US labour force participation rate. Though this figure was boosted somewhat by those unemployed as a result of COVID-19, the paper’s authors asserted that “many of those losing jobs are not looking to find new ones” and would instead retire. This observation is in line with an article by Dr Lisa Simon for JAMA Health Forum, in which she noted that the demographic make-up of American dentistry—40% of US-based dentists are currently over the age of 55—means that the profession is particularly susceptible to this somewhat involuntary form of retirement.
All in all, it is difficult, at this point, to make a definitive statement concerning the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on retirement trends in dentistry, especially since the outbreak is showing no signs of abating.