When it comes to dental care, most Americans feel abused and lost. Many are in physical and emotional pain with teeth that occasionally fall apart, smell bad, look bad, or are completely missing. Yet the dentists who are the most talented at fixing these problems are distrusted by the people in need of their help.
People usually don’t want to spend the money needed to restore their smiles with the best dentists and the best treatment. Instead, they seek out cheap care. They don’t realize that if they went to a quality, independent dentist, they could lead fuller lives.
We’re Expected to Fall In Line
My grandfather enlisted in the Air Force. He left for Italy in 1944, serving as an airplane mechanic. During his induction process, he saw an Air Force dentist. The dentist informed my grandfather that he would have to have all of his teeth removed and would receive a set of dentures. That’s what happened.
With a mouth full of plastic teeth that probably didn’t fit very well, he patched up bullet holes in Spitfire aircraft and sent them right back out there. My grandfather had no choice. You could make an argument that the Air Force didn’t either.
Now, another recession following a pandemic has left many in bad financial shape or, at the very least, feeling nervous about spending money. Like my Grandpa, many people feel like they have no choice when it comes to their dental care. Their mouths have betrayed them and they are in pain. Others don’t like how they look. While technically a cosmetic problem, the emotional pain of a poor self-image is very real and can have devastating effects on daily life.
Some have dental insurance. We might be tempted to think of them as the lucky few. Those of us without dental insurance really feel stuck. Do we suffer through our problems, hoping for a miracle, or do we spend a lot of money just to get patched up? If only we had dental insurance, right?
Actually, dental insurance rarely pays for the proper, long-lasting, and beautiful care that we deserve. The care the insurance companies will pay for isn’t much better than what my grandfather received in World War II. They don’t care that aging teeth and dentistry can change the shape of your face. They lay out the minimal treatment options that they will chip in for and you either fall in line with what they dictate to you or you’re on your own.
Of course, some people can’t afford any care and rely on the government to take care of their oral health. That’s sad and unfortunate. But for those of us with good jobs who have money for even small luxuries, I’d like to suggest an alternative to looking for the lowest cost dental care.
Investing In Ourselves
I’ve had dental insurance before. I had a tooth that was bothering me and needed a cavity filled. I thought I was going to be good to go. I was younger by about 20 years and actually had dental insurance. I can’t recall the exact details, but I remember I was very surprised to learn the insurance company would only pay for about half of the cost of a metal filling or a minuscule amount for a tooth-colored filling.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about tooth-colored fillings. I was expecting that I’d have what amounted to a $25 co-pay or something. I didn’t realize when I had a true dental need, the insurance company wouldn’t really step up to help me out. A year or two later, I needed my first dental crown and had an even more rude awakening. The insurance I was paying for on a monthly basis did not make much financial sense.
I have not always been a very frugal person, but even as a spender rather than a saver, I never wanted to pay more for the things I needed than I had to. I wanted to spend my money on the things that I wanted. My wants were more fun than my needs.
I’ve learned now: you really do get what you pay for. My money is hard-earned and if I’m going to spend it, I want what I buy to last and to give me good results. After working with dentists for the past ten years, I’ve also learned the same thing is true of dentistry: you get what you pay for.
You want cheap dentistry? What you typically get is a dentist fresh out of school. You may not be their first patient, but they are still learning the best way to do things. Sometimes the dentists are actually really good, but they are working for “the man” to pay back crushing student loan debt. They don’t call the shots at these offices and have to just hustle to get through the day. For that reason and others, you’ll also be more likely to get a different dentist each time you go to an office that promotes low-cost services.
When your dentistry doesn’t cost a lot, you also don’t get the best materials. Think of the spectrum of meal quality when you go from McDonald’s to a fine dining restaurant. Maybe you wouldn’t spring for fine dining. Maybe you’re more of a Chili’s or Applebee’s person. I understand. Even still, the experience and meal quality is a step up from McDonald’s. That’s because the restaurant has invested more in the surroundings when you sit down. They pay their staff more, and their ingredients and kitchens are a step above the fast-food chains.
At some level, we must sense this problem. We feel frustrated and even have some animosity toward dentists. When I got to know some of these doctors, I discovered it’s a two-way street. Dentists know that patients never come to them truly wanting a cheap fix that will fail in a year or even less, but patients only seem to want to pay for that patchwork treatment. Dentists feel terrible that not everyone can afford a Hollywood smile, but they also know that when they provide that level of care, their patients are thrilled.
20 years ago, I thought that you couldn’t go to the dentist without dental insurance. I thought it was mandatory by law or something. Now, I understand that dental insurance companies are a form of marketing. They supply dentists with patients in exchange for a contractual agreement that dentists will abide by certain fee structures, providing care to their patients at specified fees for approved treatment. The insurance company runs a numbers game that pays out less in treatment fees to dentists than they collect from premiums from people like you and me. It’s big business, obviously, but in this triad of money and services, the only one who really wins is the insurance company.
Dentists who are contracted with insurance companies as in-network providers don’t make very much money per patient. You might think, “Good! That means that I’m not paying very much then either!” Well, unfortunately, because of the “you get what you pay for” truth of our world, you’re paying more than you realize.
When you don’t pay for the best treatment, your results are often poor and short-lived. Your cheap filling can cost you a tooth in the long run, and in between the filling and the eventual day when that tooth is pulled, you have to go back, again and again, to get it treated. If you settle for a cheap metal filling, you may be exposed to unsafe materials in your mouth such as mercury.
Even if you get a resin filling, without proper placement and care, your filling can leak or crack and infection can come back worse than ever. You then get a cheap crown that doesn’t quite fit and can cause you headaches because it ruins your bite. Then the cheap crown cracks or pops off and requires yet another trip to the dentist, all the while causing you jaw pain and increased wear and tear on your other teeth because your bite isn’t where it should be.
We don’t realize that these problems are all connected. We never realize that, if we just invested in high-quality dental care, we’d spend roughly the same amount in the long run- possibly less. We’d still have that tooth in our mouth! Not only that, our bite would be intact, meaning that our other teeth wouldn’t have been damaged and needed root canals.
If we chose the proper treatment in the first place, what would our quality of life be like? What is a better quality of life worth? We think we are investing in dentistry that is kind of boring compared to a new TV or kind of scary with needles and drills, but we are actually investing in the resulting quality of life. Insurance companies want us to focus on cost over quality.
Living Life to Its Fullest
If you are not happy with your smile or you know that you have some serious problems, don’t put off treatment. Go to a quality dentist. A quality dentist will have helped thousands of patients just like you. They will have invested in post-doctoral training and high-tech equipment that will get you the best results with little to no discomfort. Explain your problems and goals to them. They will work with you to create a treatment plan.
If your smile needs a lot of help, the cost of a comprehensive treatment plan where you are restoring your whole mouth could be tens of thousands of dollars. Take a breath. If you’re not comfortable with the dentist, get a second opinion from an equally qualified dentist until you find a dentist who feels like a fit. In the end, don’t go with the cheapest plan just because it’s the cheapest. Go with the doctor you trust. Even if you simply have to finance the treatment, you are not making payments on dental crowns or implants.
When you laugh without covering your mouth, you’ll know where your most recent payment went. When you bite into something delicious and crunchy and you don’t feel any pain or worry, that money you saved up to pay for your dentistry will be well-spent. When you see yourself in pictures and think, “I actually look good in that picture!” you know that moment and every moment after was worth the investment.
You deserve to enjoy life to its fullest. I hope that every person can do that someday. If you have the means to pay for or finance that quality of life, don’t hesitate to do so. You won’t be able to go back in time and regain days lost to headaches, toothaches, or missed opportunities because you were too self-conscious to be yourself. Invest in yourself today.
If you can’t do it today, you can at least bypass this game where you lose and the insurance company wins. Cut them out of the deal. They don’t need your money. YOU need your money. Invest in yourself. Set aside what you would have paid to the insurance company for dental care. If you have a health savings account, you can put the money in there. If you’re lucky, the amount will build until you have enough to pay for the dentistry you need in an emergency, and you’ll certainly be able to pay for hygiene appointments to get regular cleanings that will prevent emergencies.
Who is in Control of Your Destiny?
You can live life with teeth that look great, don’t hurt, allow you to eat what you want, and make you feel good about yourself. Or you can keep kicking the can down the road toward tooth loss. The technical term is edentulism. It’s having all your teeth pulled and, if you’re lucky, you can get a denture that sort of fits. But you’ll still have plastic teeth like my grandfather unless you make a smart decision and invest in yourself.
Who is in control of your destiny? Is it the dental insurance company? No, it’s your money! Tell it where to go. Build a better life for yourself. You may have other people who rely on you too. It might feel selfish to take care of yourself but if you feel better about yourself today and have more hope for your future, you’ll take better care of your loved ones too. Don’t continue in physical and emotional pain. Be the happy and healthy person you were meant to be.