When David Osdoba started his dental practice on Walnut Street in 1956, he had no hygienists, no receptionists. He did have something of an assistant in young Daniel, one of six children, who would hand instruments to his father.

The boy became intrigued by the profession, though he grew up undecided about his future. While attending Minnesota State University, Daniel Osdoba realized dentistry fit his skills and would be a way to help people.

So he attended dental school and, in 1984 joined his father’s practice, which had by then moved to an office building at the corner of Main and Second streets.

Even as the profession continued to change — tooth implants began to replace bridges and dentures, and the pursuit of whiter teeth intensified — the practice held onto some traditions.

Daniel Osdoba’s wife, Kris, became an accountant and helped balance the business’s books. And just as he handed instruments to his father, Osdoba was joined in the practice by one of his four daughters, Gretchen.

“She used to come with me to the office after hours for emergencies and I would say even as a young kid, she was fascinated,” he says. “She was one of those kids who, when they had a loose tooth they always got it out.”

When she joins the practice in July, Gretchen Osdoba will become its third dentist. Eric Page joined in 2013.

Daniel Osdoba says the “family” in Oz Family Dentistry refers not just to his family, but to their 14 employees and their thousands of patients. The company was recently named the Family-Owned Small Business of the Year by the South Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center.

The award recognizes a business that’s been in operation for 15 years, represents the region well and is run by multiple generations.

Even as the business has retained its family focus over the decades, it has joined in dentistry’s modernization.

A changing landscape

New drills, X-rays and other technology have revolutionized the everyday work performed by dentists and dental hygienists.

Previous generations of drills, which Page described as like a “jackhammer in a patient’s mouth” have been replaced by tools that efficiently carve away plaque and decay.

X-rays, once limited to 1-by-2-inch images developed from film can now be put up on a flat-screen TV and shown to a patient.

Demand continues to be strong for cosmetic tools, including teeth whitening and tooth-colored fillings, though there is a limit to how pearly one’s whites can be.

“Sometimes, certain patients you need to talk down,” Page says.

Digital technology has alsoreplaced sometimes indecipherable handwritten charts, making it much easier to find and understand a patient’s records.

New tools are on the horizon thatare likely to change practice further. It can take two weeks to design and build a dental crown, which is a custom-made restoration that fits over each tooth.

More dentists’ offices are buying machines that allow them to design and build crowns and other dental restorations on site. Taking digital impressions and using them to custom-build tooth prosthesis will become the norm in dentistry over the next decade, Osdoba said.

And our teethare getting cleaner

Decades of water fluoridation, education about dental hygiene and widespread use of braces (straight teeth are easier to clean) have made dentists’ jobs a lot easier, Osdoba says.

Page adds that the expectations for children today, especially that they’ll see a dentist every six months, were not common decades ago, when children might see their first dentist as an older teen.

The result has been that more adults are keeping their natural teeth longer and dentures are no longer as common.

“We see 60-, 70-, 80-year-old patients with full sets of teeth,” Osdoba says.

The expectations for dentists themselves are different today, too, Page adds.

Sometimes, older adults with the most anxiety about the dentist say they were yelled at or treated roughly when they were younger.

Even considering gentler dentists, better technology and cleaner teeth, not all the changes wrought by modernity have been positive.

New challenges

Billing and otherwise dealing with insurance companies has become much more complicated.

“The impact of dental insurance has probably not been great overall for both sides,” dentist and patient, Osdoba says.

Page explains: While most health insurance pays for most or all of a person’s cost above a deductible, dental insurance is the reverse. It generally covers costs up to a certain point, with everything above that level the patient’s responsibility to pay.

This leads many patients to base decisions about their teeth on what the insurance will pay for, he says.

Meanwhile, payments from public insurance programs like Medical Assistance, which covers low-income Minnesotans, sometimes don’t cover the dentist’s costs. The result is that many dental offices in Minnesota do not accept patients covered by Medical Assistance.

A cleaning, for example, “might reimburse $20 less than you have to pay your hygienists for that hour,” Page says. He says their practice accepts patients with this coverage, but puts a limit on how many it will see.

“You save it for when you can see a need,” Page says.

Finding dental hygienists can also be difficult, especially in a tight job market. The dentists are thankful that two local programs — Minnesota State University’s dental hygiene program and South Central College’s dental assisting program — create a solid pool of applicants.

“If we don’t find one in the current class, you have to steal from another office, which you don’t want to do,” Osdoba says. “It’s a bit of a juggling act.”

Dentists aren’t trained to run a business, so operating one can be another challenge.

The practice has also changed with Mankato itself.

Staying Independent

When Osdoba finished dental school in the mid-80s, he and Kris moved to Owatonna for about a year. Though the opportunity at his father’s practice helped bring them to Mankato, they were both natives and wanted to raise their kids here.

“It was still kind of just a small town then,” Osdoba says. In 1993, they adopted their current business name and moved to a new location on Navaho Avenue a few blocks east of Madison Avenue. It was nearly the eastern edge of the town at the time. A decade later, they built their present location across the street.

In 2018, they expanded with four more “operatories,” or rooms to conduct cleanings and procedures, for a total of 10. That expansion alone, was larger than David Osdoba’s first two-room office.

The practice sees itself as staying independent for years to come, but they are facing headwinds. As more dentists try to avoid the headaches of running their own business and negotiating with suppliers and insurance companies, more are working for corporate providers like Aspen Dental.

In 1999, about two thirds of dentists were solo practitioners, compared with about half in 2017, according to a report from the American Dental Association. This suggests that dentists are moving to small groups or into chains.

Page says family-owned companies like this one have a strong future.

Mergers have been a “growing trend,” but he says dentistry is the sort of relationship-centered business that “anytime you have someone running a clinic who isn’t the one seeing the patients, I think you struggle to compete.”

Osdoba says dentists have been talking about corporatization and mergers for decades, and he sees a strong future in family-owned, independent practices like his.

Oz Family Dentistry

1550 East Adams St., Mankato

(507) 387-2603

ozfamilydentistry.com

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