20 May 2016 20:00 IST

When reality bites

Dental clinics reflect a healthcare segment where supply has far outstripped the demand

There are two dental clinics just outside the lane that leads to my house in Chennai’s Arumbakkam. I’m sure within a kilometre, there will be at least five to six more of them, claiming to provide ‘best smile’, whatever that means.

But when the need came for my wife, and then for my daughter to go to a dentist — the latter with some dramatic moments — we didn’t go to any of them. Instead, we went to a friend, who is also our family dentist.

Surprised at the excess of dentists available? Well, this is not just a Chennai phenomenon. When we were in Delhi too, there were two dentists just outside our housing colony, vying to check our teeth. Again in Delhi, we had a family friend for a dentist.

Urban ubiquity

Dental clinics and their tooth signboards are perhaps the most ubiquitous urban icons. But they also reflect a healthcare segment where supply has far outstripped the demand.

Little wonder then, that the Dental Council of India doesn’t want any more new dental colleges. According to reports that came out earlier this week, the Dental Council of India has stopped giving permission for setting up new dental colleges in the country. The existing colleges had asked the Council to take the step, citing high rate of unemployment among fresh graduates as the reason.

The unsaid reason, however, was that colleges are finding it extremely difficult to fill their seats.

It’s in the numbers

Look at the numbers.

Over 26,000 dentists graduate every year from 309 colleges. Even without adding more colleges, it is estimated that by 2020, there will be about one lakh dentists in surplus in India, who will have little opportunity to use their forceps and mouth mirrors.

On the last visit to our friend’s dental clinic in Chennai, he had spoken about the travails of his profession. Alongside running his clinic, he also teaches in a dental college. Rising competition means he has to keep two jobs.

And though college timings are tough, he can’t afford to leave it. “There are no vacancies in other colleges and once I leave, there is no hope of getting back the job as there are at least a hundred other applicants for each teaching position,” he said.

I’m sure he too will be relieved by the Council’s decision. But there is one problem — is the surplus of dentists limited to the urban markets?

According to the data cited by the reports, while there was one dentist for 10,000 people in a city, there was just one dentist for 2.5 lakh people in a village! This data is for 2004, and it would do a lot of good for stakeholders to do a reality check on the present status.

Other courses

How about other professional courses?

The engineering stream seems to be making a case for similar action. In December, Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani told the Parliament that over eight lakh seats in engineering colleges didn’t get any students in 2014-15. In Gujarat alone, more than 20,000 seats remained vacant last year.

The stakeholders are aware of the magnitude of the problem. In September 2015, Chairman of AICTE said that about 40 per cent of the present capacity in the engineering stream will be cut in the next few years.

According to the statutory body which approves engineering colleges, there were about 16.7 lakh seats for aspiring engineers. It doesn’t help that every year, only a little over 10 per cent of the graduates are employable.

This clearly shows that the policymakers and other stakeholders should focus on quality, not quantity. While there is an immediate need to call time on new engineering colleges, the dynamics are a little different in the medicine stream.

At present, there are nearly 400 medical colleges in the country, with about 50,000 seats. With just 0.7 doctors per 1,000 people (against 2.8 in UK and 2.5 in the US), according to government estimates, there is a dire need to increase the number of doctors.

The only exceptions among the doctors are the dentists. There are just not enough aching teeth to occupy all of them.