KTH Flashback: The Cost of Dental Work – and the Cost of Avoiding It

Originally posted March 1, 2010

A few months ago, one of our dental team members was out shopping when a store manager, not knowing her occupation, asked if she had any good tips for dealing with a toothache. One of his employees had a broken root canal tooth and was in severe pain. Indeed, the employee – a young man of about 20 – looked very pale and held onto the counter the whole time they spoke, as if he would fall over were he to let go. Explaining that although she wasn’t a dentist, our team member said that she did work for a dental office and suggested some stop-gap remedies.

“But really, you should see a dentist as soon as possible,” she insisted. “You shouldn’t let something like that go for too long. It’s not just hellish to endure the pain and not being able to eat. If there’s infection, it can be really dangerous.”

“I know, but I can’t afford it,” replied the clerk. “I’m on my mom’s insurance, but it won’t kick in until February. I don’t get insurance here. And I just paid $1700 to Western Dental for the root canal.”

Our team member sympathized and shared some of the tips and resources for finding affordable care that we’ve shared with you here. The young man thanked her, then went on break to buy some ibuprofen and Anbesol to try to kill the pain so he could at least make it through the rest of his shift.

With the persistent problems of unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity and a sketchy economy, many of us are feeling economic pressure as never before and look for more and more ways to cut back our spending to make sure our money lasts.

Unfortunately, a good number of people are cutting back on dental care, or at minimum, putting it off as long as possible and then looking for the lowest cost option possible, whether or not it’s the best option. Consequently, many dentists are seeing a significant uptick in emergency cases. According to a Wealthy Dentist survey, 63% of dentists report such an increase.

But economic hardship isn’t the only reason people defer care. After all, before the economic crisis, dentists still saw many people putting off treatment as long as possible.

We think there are a couple reasons why deferring dental care is so easy. For starters, many dental conditions – such as periodontitis (gum disease) and caries – don’t cause pain or discomfort until the problems become severe. Only then will some people contact a dentist. But at this point, problems typically require much more treatment at much greater cost than they would had they been treated earlier in the disease process.

Second, there is still a strong tendency – even amongst those in dentistry – to view the dentist as a sort of glorified mouth mechanic. Consider this post from Dentist Love, the blog of 1-800-DENTIST:

As I guy, I like to think of myself as a handyman.

I’ve fixed leaky faucets, broken toys, faulty light switches … you know, lots of around-the-house projects.

But when it comes to my truck or my motorcycle, I must admit I leave it ALL to my mechanic. Why? Because I’ve tried engine repair on my own in the past and had horrible results.

I think the same goes for my dentist.

When you take this perspective, it’s easy to think as dental care being only something you pursue when something goes wrong. But as Dr. Verigin writes,

I question their philosophy, which I variously call “industrial dental medicine,” “corporate dental medicine” or “Western school medicine.” This outlook views the decay process as an abnormality in a functioning machine. Primary symptoms are suppressed with specific “silver bullets.” The patient plays victim. The dentist is a glorified mouth mechanic, tooth engineer or oral plumber. Disease processes are reduced to computer code.

Our 21st century outlook, integrated, biological dentistry, focuses first on the parents and their children. We work together to develop health strategies for their lives. They become clients and students, not patients. The dentist by definition is a doctor, which also means “teacher.” Since our dentistry focuses on the underlying mechanisms of the disease process, my staff and I teach and coach our clients by enhancing awareness of the whole body implications of dental disease. Beyond teaching basic cleaning techniques, we encourage proper nutrition to chemically and electrically enhance the body and reduce the risks of decay.

Obviously, this is much more involved and more demanding of the individual’s active participation in maintaining his or her dental – as well as systemic – health. But it also provides the tools and knowledge for the most cost-effective approach to dental and oral health: preventive care. If you take care of your teeth and oral tissues through proper hygiene, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle choices, you minimize the risk of chronic and costly dental health problems that will really put a dent in your bank account.

If problems do arise – say, an accident occurs and you lose, break or loosen a tooth, or a tooth or the gums become painful for any reason – it is vital to your overall health to see a dentist as quickly as possible. Not only can a dentist help with pain relief but correct the problem and prevent infection which, if left untreated, can affect other areas of the body and even, in extreme cases, cause death.

One handy resource for knowing what to do – including how quickly to seek help for dental injuries – is Dear Doctor’s “Field-Side Guide to Dental Injuries” (PDF). This simple and clear chart lets you know in what cases immediate treatment is called for and those in which treatment is less urgent. It also provides some useful tips for tending the injury until you can get to a dentist.

Of course, there are situations other than direct injury that should also prompt you to see a dentist as soon as possible for evaluation and treatment – particularly if you have pain and/or sensitivity that doesn’t go away, or if you have heavy bleeding in the mouth or abscesses. These are all signs of oral problems such as decay, infection and exposed roots that will not fix themselves on their own or get better over time. Once you are aware of the problem, again, it is in your best interest to contact a dentist immediately. An untreated problem will only get worse and be more expensive to take care of properly.

Fortunately, when it comes to the financials, you do have options for paying for the care you need:

If you have dental insurance, it will likely cover at least part of the cost. If you don’t have insurance, there are other financing options you can pursue, from in-office payment plans to consumer credit plans (e.g., CareCredit) specifically designed to cover dental and medical costs.

If money is an issue, be up front about it. If you get public assistance of some kind but can’t find a dentist who will accept it, ask about other payment options. If you live near a city with a dental school, you can get low-cost services at their clinic.

For more information on finding a dental school clinic or other source of reduced-cost services, see the NIDCR’s website or contact your state dental association about available assistance programs where you live.

Just don’t do nothing.

Image byme and the sysop/Flickr, via Flickr

Published by The Verigin Dental Health Team

A humanistic, holistic dental practice in Northern California, providing integrative, biological, mercury-free dentistry