M&A activity in the UK dental market has seen ‘significant’ growth in recent years, but maintaining the supply of dentists could become a challenge, research by Christie and Co suggests.

There are over 41,000 dentists and 116,000 dental professionals working in roughly 12,500 dental practices in the UK, according to the real estate advisor’s Dental Industry 2018 report.

However, it said workforce pressures in the sector have led to a 39% drop in EEA registrations since 2016, which could worsen after Brexit if the profession does not grow its pipeline of new dentists.

In a panel discussion at the report’s launch, Eddie Crouch, vice chairman of the British Dental Association Principal Executive Committee, said pressures on NHS dentists today had forged a ‘massive difference in morale’ between private and NHS dentists.

‘The NHS contract has become almost untenable with the pressures that are put on dentists by the commissioners, and people are frightened of working in a system that is still very much a treadmill system where you have to deliver at a fairly rapid pace,’ said Crouch.

Julian Perry, group commercial director at MyDentist, added: ‘I think the challenge that is in front of the entire profession is the shortage of dentists. There appears to be enough dentists but the reality is there aren’t because they all want to be in Manchester, London or Leads … they don’t want to be in Norfolk.

‘When recruiting dentists, I also think you need to factor in what I call the millennial dentist.

‘[Millennials] want less stress … there’s an awful lot of pressure on [them] and they have responded by saying ‘I want a better work life balance’.

Of the 12,500 dental practices in the UK, a relatively small percentage, just 12%, are owned by cooperate or multiple operators, according to Christie and Co.

Perry, who held senior positions at Oasis Dental Care before moving to MyDentist, said there were ‘misnomers’ about corporate dentistry, ‘where it was determined quite early on that if you were a corporate dental provider you must be bad … that it must be about profit at all cost’.

However, he said that while negative perceptions probably reflected some truths about corporate dentistry in the past, they were ‘considerably less true today’ as the sector faces different challenges.

Perry added that individual practices perform better when they are given the freedom to operate at a local level, and that in the past businesses had made the mistake of  ‘assuming that it is easy to create a brand’ by buying up practices.

Simon Turton, managing director of dental group Gensmile, said standardisation was important to managing a portfolio of practices, but ‘once you get above 50 sites it becomes harder to have that real practice-by-practice approach.’

He said: ‘There can be some very good things about standardisation for the client, but there can be some very bad things about it in terms of treating the practices the same and I think historically there’s been a commoditisation of how associates are treated as well.’