Dental Workforce Trends: A National Study of Gender Diversity and Practice Patterns 

The dental workforce is increasingly gender diverse. Elizabeth Mertz, PhD, MA, and colleagues shared their findings of a study that analyzed gender differences in dental practice using the American Dental Association’s 2010-2016 Masterfile and the 2017 Survey of Dental Practice in a recent Medical Care Research and Review Supplement article.

The researchers found between 2010 and 2016, the proportion of women working in dentistry increased from 24.5% to 29.8%. Overall, female dentists were more racially/ ethnically diverse, more likely to be foreign-trained, and more likely to work in pediatric dentistry, public health settings and to treat low-income patients than male dentists. The likelihood of female dentists working as employees, part-time, and/or in metropolitan areas was 1.2 to 4.2 times greater compared with male dentists. Female solo practitioners were 1.2 to 1.8 times more likely to provide services to children and patients covered by public insurance than male solo practitioners.

Supporting well-documented findings of the importance of workforce diversity in reducing disparities in health status and health outcomes among racial and ethnic minority populations, the researchers found that the increase in women in the dental workforce was accompanied by a rise in racial/ ethnic diversity, with higher proportions of female dentists than male dentists being Hispanic, Black or African American. In addition, more female dentists than male dentists were foreign trained, suggesting increasing cultural and language diversity in the profession as well. The workforce pipeline is now at gender parity in dental education, but it will still take many years to achieve parity in the active dental workforce. 

Women dentists are younger and more diverse than their male counterparts adding an intersectional element to the researchers’ analysis of gender trends. Coincidental gender and generational diversification will work in multiple directions making it increasingly unlikely that the past is closely predictive of the future, especially for a profession in rapid market transition. More research is needed to disentangle the intersection of gender, race, generational changes, practice model changes, and new modalities (e.g., new oral health workforce models, dental materials, information technology) on future labor market needs and impacts on access to care. In this shifting ecological context, interpretation of the impact of increasing gender diversity becomes multidimensional. The question should not necessarily be the impact female dentists have on practice capacity, but instead, how will changing practice models for all dentists affect professional needs and service delivery.

There are efforts to integrate oral health care with medical, behavioral health, and other health care systems to improve the value of services and quality of patient outcomes and to better address widespread lack of access to health and oral health care services for many in the United States. A well prepared, diverse oral health professional workforce will be needed to provide services to an increasingly diverse and aging patient population. Understanding differences in practice choice based on gender, generational, or cultural differences within the professional workforce will inform the development of policies and innovative programs that foster access to oral health services for the underserved.

Elizabeth Mertz, PhD, MA

Dr. Mertz is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, with a joint appointment in the Department of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences, School of Dentistry and in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Nursing. She is affiliated with Healthforce Center, the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, and the Center to Address Disparities in Children’s Oral Health (CANDO). Beth has researched, published and lectured on a broad range of health professions workforce policy and analysis issues including; supply and demand of providers, health care regulation, state and federal workforce policy, access to care, and evolving professional practice models. 



Dental Workforce Trends: A National Study of Gender Diversity and Practice Patterns.

Surdu S, Mertz E, Langelier M, Moore J.Med Care Res Rev. 2021 Feb;78(1_suppl):30S-39S. doi: 10.1177/1077558720952667. Epub 2020 Aug 28.