This cost-saving measure has teeth

I guess it was a couple nights ago that my youngest daughter was watching an episode of Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel, where it seems Miley was a wee bit afraid of going to the dentist. Well, she's not alone.

One of the casualties of the recession is the twice-a-year dental visit ritual that we're all supposed to participate in. People aren't just afraid of drills and learning that they have cavities, it seems; they're afraid of the dental bills that come afterward. The Chicago Dental Society recently took a survey of 300 dentists in the area, and more than 50% said that their patients are putting off necessary dental work. Sixty percent of the dentists reported a drop in elective procedures, and 40 percent have noticed fewer preventative visits.
And according to a December survey by the American Dental Association, 53% of dentists reported an increase in patients dropping appointments.

As one dentist told an ABC television station, "A lot of times, patients will say, if it doesn't hurt, leave it alone."

But I thought I'd mention that if you're low on cash and need or want to go to the dentist, you might want to consider trying a dental school, which need patients and charge far less than--well, real dentists. After all, if you go to a dental school, you're being treated by students--but accomplished students and veteran instructors are always hovering nearby.

I have a cash-challenged relative who had some dental work done at Ohio State University, and I know it worked out well for him. And has an interesting story about the University of North Carolina's dental school. Their web site is here. tells of how one 73-year-old paid $900 for two partial dental plates. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but at a regular dentist's office, it would have cost him $4,000.

Because of that cost savings, however, apparently these dental schools are pretty popular; sometimes you can only get in by winning a lottery.

But these schools are out there across the country. I found one web page that lists numerous dentist schools around the country that offer low to free dental care.

Interestingly enough, however, despite the drop in dentist visits, Time magazine, about a week ago, had a story saying how dentistry seems to be recession-proof. Time concedes that "patients who receive limited or no insurance tend to skip cleanings and other dental maintenance during tough times as they look to save a few bucks." (Sure, I love that. A few bucks. Like one cleaning is just the price of a hamburger at McDonald's But on with the magazine's quote.) "But dentists pick up even more revenue later on. Patients who've skipped checkups now have achy teeth and have no choice but to undergo a more expensive procedure."

Then Time quotes Dr. Lawrence Spindel, a dentist in New York City, underscoring why dentristy may be somewhat recession-proof: "It's human nature to say, 'I can't afford that right now, and if it doesn't hurt, I don't have a problem. Then all of a sudden you need a root canal."

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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