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Introducing: The Dentist Economic Indicator

Kelly Evans and Erika Santoro, CNBC
Friday, 2 Mar 2012 | 4:46 PM ET

Want to know how the economy’s doing? Ask your dentist.

Dentist
Dentist

That’s how we recently discovered one hopeful sign for the labor market: an increase in new dental patients. Our Manhattan-based dentist said he was seeing about three new patients a day in recent weeks, up from one or two on average last year.

The reason? More people with health insurance as a result of getting full-time jobs.

Manhattan, of course, is not exactly representative of the rest of the country. So we reached out to dentists across the country and heard much the same thing; while business isn’t exactly booming, there has been a noticeable increase in new patients coming through the door.

'Dentist Indicator' Points to Improving Economy
CNBC's Kelly Evans discusses an unusual positive sign for the economy: dentists are reporting, anecdotally, that they're getting more new patients as people who get a job start using their benefits.

Santa Clarita Dentistry of Santa Clarita, Calif., reported a slight uptick in new patients this year, reversing about three years of decline. Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry in Atlanta, Ga., is seeing three times as many new patients this year as at the end of 2011 — and more demand for cosmetic dentistry, which suggests patients have a bit more discretionary income to spend.

The increase in new patients is important because dentists can also see a surge in business for the wrong reason; namely, people scrambling to use their health benefits before they run out.

That said, our survey is hardly scientific. And as dentist Laurence C. Breiterman of Advanced Dental Techniques in Wayne, N.J., was quick to point out: people tend to “spend their disposable income on vacations rather than the dentist.” His practice, which is not as insurance-based, hasn’t seen much of an uptick in new patients. Still, Mr. Breiterman said existing patients have been getting more work done.

According to Sageworks, which collects data on private industries, dentistry is showing some recovery; after growth of just 1.5 percent in 2009, sales rose by 2.4 percent in 2010 and last year, by 3.9 percent. News, perhaps, to smile about.

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