The overall healthcare jobs forecast looks bright — but what about the oral health workforce? 

This op-ed was originally published in Becker's Payer Issues.

By: James W. Hutchison, President & CEO, Delta Dental Plans Association

At the beginning of March, the healthcare industry received some good news – 67,000 new jobs were added in February, which is above the monthly average increase of 58,000 over the last 12 months, according to new data from the Department of Labor. While that is great news, many needs must be met to create a sustainable workforce of the future, particularly in the oral health professions. 

Dental industry data indicates looming retirements in the dental, dental assisting, and hygienist professions. The question is: who is waiting in the wings to fill the positions? Investing in the future of the oral health workforce is critical because oral health is deeply connected to overall health, impacting everything from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to dementia and other chronic conditions. Payers can make a meaningful impact in this space by specifically focusing on three things: diversifying the workforce, elevating collaborative opportunities, and investing in technology that advances care. 

Research shows that racial and ethnic diversity among health professionals is linked to improved patient outcomes. Like the medical workforce, the current oral health workforce generally does not reflect the communities it serves. Creating more oral health care professionals — dentists, but also dental hygienists, therapists, and assistants — from historically underrepresented groups means increased access to preventive care, which helps improve outcomes and lower costs. 

Last year Delta Dental established the first national Oral Health Diversity Fund, which makes targeted investments in comprehensive solutions, innovative pilots, and scalable models that inspire school-aged children from historically underrepresented groups to pursue careers in oral health. This week, we announced that applications for 2024 funding are being accepted until May 31. 

In addition to investing in the workforce of the future, we must also consider the future of care delivery. Data on medical-dental integration (MDI) models, which generally involve the co-location of medical and dental services or integration of care, is promising. Research from the University of Colorado, sponsored by the Delta Dental Institute, found both models improve health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations—the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those living with chronic disease. Patients receiving care through MDI models have fewer facilities to visit, appointments to make, and providers to coordinate. In addition to the patients benefits, these models also create synergies that lessen the administrative burden on providers – allowing more time for care delivery. 

We know that technology has the potential to advance care while creating administrative efficiencies for a more sustainable work environment. For example, integration and interoperability of electronic health records (EHR) can help providers uncover health patterns across care teams, manage care strategies for patients with complex needs, and more easily close referral loops between practices – leading to better oral and overall health outcomes, particularly for more vulnerable patients. In addition, telehealth and teledentistry can make routine care more affordable and accessible for patients and can be woven into a seamless care cycle, along with the regular in-person dental exams and cleanings that are critical to preventive oral health care. 

While there is much work to be done, there are solutions gaining momentum to create a more sustainable healthcare workforce of the future. Our industry’s continued focus on and investment in these spaces is key to advancing the oral and overall health of those we serve.