What Happens if DSOs Start Funding Dental Schools?

Here’s a thought experiment: Facing a shortage of qualified associates, a major DSO — in the league of Heartland or Aspen — decides to tackle the problem from the supply side. 

This DSO sets aside tens of millions of dollars to found a dental school, with the aim of increasing the number of new dentists entering the profession every year. Maybe they partner with an existing university to ensure the school has the academic credibility and institutional know-how to succeed.

Soon enough, lots of shiny new DDSs or DMDs are being granted — and many of those degree holders go on to work for the DSO that essentially helped to pay for their education.

Good idea? Or fraught with potential pitfalls?

The upside is obvious. More dentists mean more opportunities for growing the dental industry and potentially, better access to care for those in need. 

And while some may worry about increased competition, the reality is that only 40 percent of Americans regularly seek dental care. For those willing to make an effort to find new patients among that other 60 percent, there’s plenty of fish in the sea. 

However, we see danger in a downside that may seem less obvious. If a DSO is the primary funder for a dental school, what does that mean for professional ethics?

Would, for example, professors find themselves pressured — however subtly — to teach dental ethics in a way that fits neatly into the priorities of the DSO itself? Would lessons on standards of care shift to be more accommodating towards the DSOs’ profit goals?

Remember, in this scenario that we’re proposing, the dental school acts as almost a feeder into the DSO itself. However nominally independent, school officials would have a major incentive to keep their big donors happy — while the DSO would be equally tempted to produce dentists who fit neatly into its corporate structure.

The truth is, this thought experiment has at least some roots in the real world. In 2022, Dr. Rick Workman, founder of Heartland Dental, gave $32 million to North Carolina’s High Point University to start a new school of dental medicine

Plus, businesses creating feeder schools is nothing new, as anyone who has earned a certificate from Grow With Google can attest.

So we wonder: Will other DSOs follow Dr. Workman’s lead — and then go down the path we’re envisioning? And would doing so enhance our industry, create an ethical quagmire, or simply maintain the status quo?

We don’t know. But we may yet find out.

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