The average income of a dentist who owns his or her own practice is in the highest 5% in the country. Prospects for dentists are as good as they have ever been, and there are particularly good opportunities in Mississippi, said Dr. James R. Hupp, dean of the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry.
“Individuals who finish here after four years of dental training usually find well-paying positions mostly in the state,” Hupp said. “Right now the actual number of licensed dentists is decreasing in Mississippi even though the population is increasing and the demand for dental care is increasing as well, even faster than population growth.”
Hupp said a substantial number of dentists trained in the 1960s and 1970s are reaching retirement age or have done so well in their practice that they are retiring at an earlier age than usual. And the number of dentists from other states who move to Mississippi is lower than average.
“Mississippi is not a state a lot of people trained in other states move to compared to places like California, Texas, Florida and even Georgia and Tennessee,” Hupp said. “The net result is it increases the opportunities for people planning to practice in Mississippi.”
Mississippi has the lowest number of dentists per population of any state in the country. Many people can’t afford dental care, and the state has one of the poorest rates of dental benefit eligibility for Medicaid of any state.
“Medicaid covers preventative services and diagnostic services pretty well, but it doesn’t pay for children needing work and adults needing work other than tooth removal,” Hupp said. “The reimbursements rates for doing the few things covered by Medicaid are lower than the cost of delivering service. It discourages private practice dentists from seeing Medicaid patients. I think there are some bills being considered by the Legislature to address this, although I am not sure how successful they are likely to be.”
Hupp said the situation is particularly bad for kids in Mississippi. Because dental disease causes pain, it is very distracting for kids to try to learn while their mouth hurts.
Each year the dental school graduates 28 to 30 new dentists.
Hupp said when young people are deciding their career, they should be aware that the earnings of dentists are at least on par with doctors.
“In the primary care area, family medicine and pediatrics, and even internal medicine, general dentists do much better financially typically in Mississippi than their medical colleagues,” Hupp said. “So when someone is trying to determine whether to go into various branches of healthcare, we hope if their objective is a healthy income for their family that they will give dentistry a careful look. They shouldn’t discount the value of being a dental professional. They can be making a very comfortable income on par with their medical colleagues. That is not often understood.”
While earnings average about $165,000 for the general dentist in Mississippi, the cost of dental schools runs around $125,000 and the cost of setting up a practice can run the total investment into seven figures.
“Purchasing land, building an office and buying equipment can be very expensive,” said Dr. Roddy Scarbrough, a general dentist in Richton who is currently president of the Mississippi Dental Association. “You know how much real estate costs. Add all the specialty equipment needed for dentistry and you can run up a big bill quickly. It can take many years to get the practice paid for. All that time, you have to do updates with computers and hardware. Just as with any business, overhead is a killer. That is what you try to minimize.”
Next to overall building maintenance and operation costs, the next highest cost for a dentist is staff. Dental hygienists on average make about $59,000 per year in the U.S.
“Staff costs can be high,” Scarbrough said. “It is critical to have people who are interested in patient care and understand the business aspect of it. We have a team approach for treating patients. Everyone is concerned with the patient from the front desk to the doctor in the back.”
Scarbrough doesn’t do any external marketing. His “secret” to success is treating all patients just like they were family members. Patients appreciate that, and end up selling the practice for him.
“People referring their friends, that is the highest compliment you can be paid as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m in a small town, so it isn’t as bad starting out a practice as being in a big town.”
In practice since 1990 after graduating from the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry, Scarbrough likes the variety that comes with the job.
“It is never the same thing twice,” he said. “All patients seem to be happy with your work when you are completed. You have satisfied patients in most cases.”
Malpractice lawsuits are an issue for dentists, as well as physicians. But Scarbrough said while prices for dental malpractice insurance have increased in recent years, they aren’t nearly as bad as for physicians.
What is the worst part of the job? People not showing up for appointments is one.
“If you are scheduled and don’t show up, it is difficult to fill that time because we planned to see you as part of the income that day,” he said. “We try to call and remind people of their appointment the day before. We don’t charge for no shows, but that does become an issue.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.