How To Cut Costs At The Dentist

While it’s still fresh in my mind or rather in my..mouth, I thought I would discuss Dentistry today. Last week, I had a tooth of mine chip a little bit. It’s had something of a hole in it for some time but I didn’t have insurance, and when I got insurance I was so used to the hole that I continued to ignore it. The real kicker here is that there was never any pain so I figured it wasn’t that big of a problem.

After the chip last week, I decided I’d better get to the dentist soon. After calling a dozen booked dentists, I found one that could get me in that day. There was still no pain.

The dentist looked in my mouth and exclaimed, “Whoa!”…that made me really comfortable. He was astonished I hadn’t had any pain, removed the cavity and found that the cavity had nicked the nerve canal allowing bacteria to infect the nerves. I was told I would need a root canal, and the dentist got started. He did a partial root canal and sent me to an endodontic specialist.

That’s about where I am now. I’m still waiting to get back into the original dentist to do part 3 of 4 of the procedure and then will have to wait another week or so to get back in for the final portion of the procedure.

Here’s what I learned so far…

  • Prevention!
  • I can’t stress this enough! Dentistry is really expensive. I haven’t been to the dentist much and have never had any major work done till now but I was baffled when I got the cost, even with insurance covering at least half of the procedure. The dentist told me if the nerve canal had not been breached, they could have just put a filling and been done with it. That would have cost far less, in both money and pain, than what I am currently experiencing. Regular checkups can prevent things getting this bad and save you a ton of money.

  • Get the details!
  • Don’t just blindly take the price given to you and walk away, especially if you have insurance. Insurance can put a blinder on you when you have to pay for things, but they don’t cover everything. It’s best to find out exactly what the cost will be, total and remainder after the insurance is through paying. Get a detailed estimate of the work needed.

  • Shop around!
  • Just like any other cost, shop around to find the best price. I haven’t been to any dentist in 5 years, so I have no emotional ties to any of them at this point. After finding out exactly what I would need to finish this little journey of pain (after the expensive endodontic treatment which was required because the tooth is a molar), I called a few dentist and even though they are both preferred providers for my insurance, the cost was very different! One dentist told me that the cost would be over $1000 but as a preferred provider for my insurance, they write off a portion of the cost, and then bill the insurance so my cost would come to around $300. The other dentist quoted me a total of $800, but my cost was estimated closer to $400. The whole field is very unregulated, so make sure you check multiple dentist.

  • Ask about alternatives
  • Many procedures have alternative methods to solve the problem. Unfortunately for me, the alternative to a root canal is extraction, which is much more painful, inconvenient and expensive. For other procedures, you may be happy you asked because you can save money, time and pain.

  • Cosmetic vs Health
  • Sometimes a procedure may be recommended but it really is only for cosmetics. Talk about other options with your dentist as well as if the procedure is really necessary. When asking about extraction for my tooth, they told me I would have to have something put in in place of the tooth but in reality, that’s mostly cosmetic. Some dentists will tell you that without a tooth, your teeth will shift but others deny this as an absolute truth.

One more thing to consider. In different areas of the country, dentistry operates differently. In California, one dentist would have done the entire procedure for this root canal, regardless of the tooth. It would have taken much longer, the one appointment, but would have been over in one or at most, two visits. Here in Utah, I guess they found better recovery and success if after each part of the procedure the patient was given time to recover. I’m not sure if I agree, because I would rather be able to eat solid foods after a week, rather than the four+ I will be going through until my work is all done.

So there you have it. Please take my nearly $2,000 lesson and apply it in your own life so you don’t have to experience this yourself!

Image by Conor Lawless

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16 People have left comments on this post

» MattNo Gravatar said: { Apr 25, 2010 - 10:04:05 }

I honestly think regular cleaning is the way to go. I see my dentist twice a year to get my little thoothies cleaned up. When I’m there the dentists comes in and dose a quick check up. After that if there are no problems I book my next cleaning. I like this because it costs a little money now rather than a lot later.


Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Matt, I totally agree and plan to take that kind of approach. I’m really starting to understand and appreciate the small incremental things that really add up in life. Thanks for your great comment!

» The Saved QuarterNo Gravatar said: { Apr 27, 2010 - 10:04:36 }

Also, you can consider a dental school for less expensive treatment. The one in San Francisco (University of the Pacific) is excellent, I hear, and they do zero interest payment plans. All work is supervised and more in depth work is done by teachers. If you’re on a really tight budget without insurance, that may be worth checking out
.-= The Saved Quarter´s last blog ..Extending the Table: an International Taste on our Table =-.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

That’s so funny, Saved, I actually just read about going to dental school after I wrote this article up. That is an interesting idea, and I have had friends that work and go to say a beauty school for haircuts at a huge reduction in cost, I’m just not so sure I could let a dental student work on my teeth. They are 3rd and 4th year students, but a dentist with 20 years of experience may know exactly how to administer the shots and drill the teeth. Their skill and techniques vary so much, an assistant for a competitor of my dentist actually using my dentist for her dental work because of his exquisite technique with the needle. I agree though, when tight on a budget, it may be worth checking out.

» LeanLifeCoachNo Gravatar said: { Apr 29, 2010 - 06:04:09 }

Personally, if you are going to save me enough money, use a rusty needle and a bad technique! Its all cost/benefit, right!

You make great points about the variability in this industry. The reality is that they can get away with charging whatever they feel they can get from a customer because so few of us check prices. At best buy the employees hear all day about how a customer can save $5 at a competitor but a dentist once told me that he had very few customers ever question his pricing. Like you said in most cases we don’t really care because the bill is being handled by insurance.
.-= LeanLifeCoach´s last blog ..Money and Loyalty =-.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Coach, I think it’s that insurance that just makes us feel warm and fuzzy about spending the money. I mean, the total bill was 12000 and you only had to pay 2,000 of that? What a treat! But we really need to be aware of the variability in the industry and make sure we aren’t getting drilled on more than just our teeth 🙂

This same thing goes for medical insurance and costs!

» Len PenzoNo Gravatar said: { Apr 30, 2010 - 03:04:13 }

Wow. Sorry to hear about your teeth, Jesse.

As somebody who has had regular dentist visits every 6 months virtually uninterrupted since I was 5 years old, I can attest to prevention as being the best medicine. Regular brushing, flossing and check-ups go a long way to minimizing long term costs.

As for price shopping, I understand the reason to do so – but a word of caution: be careful. There are a lot of good dentists out there but there are few who, well, you get what you pay for. When you do find a good one, stick with him if at all possible. I’ve had 4 good ones in my life and one completely incompetent one – and he made my life miserable for the two years I stuck with him.

All the best,

Len Penzo dot Com
.-= Len Penzo´s last blog ..The Great Paper Towel Test: What Brand Is Your Best Value? =-.

» Toronto DentistNo Gravatar said: { Jun 15, 2010 - 08:06:39 }

Good advice in this post.

I'll tell you an insider's secret… Dentistry all comes down to carpentry and gardening. If you take care of the gardening you can stay away from the carpentry.

Regarding your root canal. If I meet someone with a deep cavity that isn't bothering them much, I lean towards a sedative filling (made of zinc oxide and oil of cloves). That gives a tooth a chance to calm down. After a month or so, change it to something more durable.

The best dentistry is the usually the least amount possible to do the job properly.

Of course it is more profitable to say "Whoa" and jump right to doing a root canal, core and crown…

I didn't see your tooth. Maybe you needed it done, maybe you didn't. At this point you're already committed.

That's why it's good to earn your Dental Degree from Google and walk in prepared.
My recent post Path of Pain: Dental Pain Management II

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

I really don’t know much about dentistry, having not been very often but thanks for the advice. I think you’re right in that the best procedures are the least invasive and those that let the body naturally fight the problems. I’m all crowned up now, but I’ll have to see if I can get something like that done, should I ever need another root canal.

» Toronto Dentist :)No Gravatar said: { Jun 22, 2010 - 08:06:22 }

My last comments were a twinge hostile. Sorry about that. It was late.

Relating to your experience with the root canal and crown, I ended up writing a post about Dental Pain Exploiters – dentist who take advantage of people in pain… Some Dentists will hate me for it.
My recent post Dental Sins and Dentists to Avoid – Pain Exploiters II

jmichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Oh no worries my friend, I didn't think it was hostile at all! I'm enjoying your blog about dentistry and glad you are sharing your experiences in the field with others. You aren't doing something great unless you are hated by some.

» Toronto dentistNo Gravatar said: { Aug 7, 2010 - 04:08:21 }

I find your tips very entertaining and the same time informative. I hope that a dentist would read your post so that they will be able to understand us, the patient.
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