Do you share a dentist’s need for disability income insurance?

Allen Wastler

By Allen Wastler
Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Posted on Feb 4, 2020

It often comes as a surprise to many people, but do you know what kind of professional tends to buy the most disability income insurance? Dentists.

That’s right. Not lumberjacks, police detectives, or airline pilots — professions that typically encompass some amount of occupational risk — but dentists. And these are professionals most people see, or should, every few months in an orderly office for a cleaning or the occasional cavity. And yet, they are subject to a disability risk?

Why is that?

Part of the dissonance comes from a misunderstanding about job disability itself. Many people think accidents and injuries are the main reason for suddenly being unable to work for an extended period of time. In reality, the majority of disabilities result from various illnesses.

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Based exclusively on long-term disability (LTD) claims active during the 2017 calendar year. Source: Integrated Benefits Institute, Health and Productivity Benchmarking, 2017 Long Term Disability, September 11, 2018.

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But another part of the equation comes from the cost and time commitment it takes to become and practice being a dentist.

“They are highly trained and specifically degreed professionals, and they spend as much as a third of their working life in school,” said John Ocwieja, a family business specialist with WestPoint Financial Group in Chicago. “They have extremely limited options owing to their highly specialized training, if disabled.”

Indeed, dentists’ income is directly tied to that investment in education and training.

“They have very specialized education and their financial future relies on the utilization of that education over their entire career,” Brian Schmuke, a managing director at Synergy Wealth Solutions in Chesterfield, Missouri, pointed out. “If they could not practice, it would be very unlikely for them to be able to make an equivalent living in an unrelated profession.”

That’s where disability income insurance comes in. It helps cover a portion of someone’s income should they become too sick or injured to work. And that can become especially important for those who depend on a regular income or spent a lot of time and effort to get to the point where they could earn a certain level of income, like dentists.

Education and starting out

Beyond the cost of a basic four-year college education, dental school itself can be a long-term commitment and expensive. The typical dental program takes four years. Those looking to move into a specialized area, such as periodontics or oral surgery, may go through an additional two to four years of training.

According to an American Dental Association 2018–2019 survey, the average first-year cost of dental school was $39,662 for public dental-school programs and $72,271 for private dental school programs. Newly minted dentists graduating in 2017 had an average debt load of $341,190, according to a separate survey by the American Dental Education Association.

“Dentists typically use financial leverage, that’s debt, to a significant degree early in their careers and becoming unable to work during this time could cause those debt payments to become impossible to maintain,” said Schmuke. (Related: Discover student loan refinancing options through CommonBond)

Once graduated, there are additional costs for entering practice. There are professional and state licensing exams, both written and clinical, that have to be taken. Beyond those fees are the costs associated with establishing a practice. With various special equipment needs involved, start-up costs can average $475,000, according to Bank of America . The ADA puts the cost at $500,000.

Practicing

On the bright side, dentists for the most part can start practicing after their education more quickly than other types of medical professions. And their pay can be significant.

The average net income for dentists in private practice in 2018 was $190,440 for general dentists and $330,180 for specialists, according to the ADA.

On the other hand, that work comes with some drawbacks. The job involves stress, both mental and physical. Beyond the typical pressures of running a business are patient attitudes (many resent the dentist’s chair) and insurance and payment issues(dental coverage is often limited). On top of that, the workspace is often confined, the movements repetitive, and the time pressure constant.

Of course, other professions involve high educational costs and stress as well. Other types of professionals — medical doctors, attorneys, and financial professionals — all follow a similar track. But dentistry typically involves more physical involvement on a tighter schedule.

Those stresses open the door for illness, either physical due to contorted or repeated motions (think carpal tunnel syndrome) or mental. Nearly one-fifth of British dentists in a 2019 survey revealed they had seriously thought about suicide. Indeed, the ADA warns its members that “as a dentist, you have a one in four chance of becoming disabled.”

“Dentistry can be very demanding on the mind and body, particularly the back,” said Schmuke. “Dentists are very conscious of this and often choose to buy disability income insurance as a way to mitigate this risk.”

Compare

Dentistry may have a unique combination of demands, but those same demands to varying degrees are common to other professions as well.

Lawyers, for instance, may have less physical or manual dexterity demands, but face the same kind or even greater mental stress demands when litigating cases. Or other kinds of medical practitioners may have similar physical demands, but face less stress over patient compensation or resentment.

And all, for the most part, invested heavily in education and training to get to their position. And that investment is what’s at stake should they get too ill or injured to function in their job.

“Dentists really are no different than other degreed and highly trained professionals in some ways,” Ocwieja pointed out. “The cost of retraining is extremely high and only increases risk in all areas of life. The purpose of disability income insurance is to exchange premium for such risk.”

So, for purposes of your potential disability income insurance needs, you might want to look at your own investment in education and training as well as the income you derive from it. (Calculator: How much disability income insurance do I need?)

“Dentists typically have an excellent lifestyle; high incomes coupled with very healthy work/life balance,” said Schmuke. “Dentists lead a lifestyle that is very enjoyable and they don’t want anything, including illness or injury, to stand in the way of that.”

Learn more from MassMutual…

Is disability income insurance worth it?

Staying fit with a physical or mental disability

Disability facts that may surprise you

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.