Couple Smiling

The Cost Of Your Smile

  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • February 13, 2015 at 5:42 AM

Dental work is rarely cheap, but the lengths people go to avoid it or to get the perfect smile leads to all kinds of extra costs.

As well as the horrifying drill soundtrack that often pierces the waiting room – and the fear it instils in many people – there are both official and residual charges that can seem out of proportion to other healthcare costs.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) puts the total annual spending in Australia at $8336 million, partly because the ratio of dentists to people is so low. But on an individual level, the amount of money spent often comes down to whether or not private health insurance is involved.

According to reports from the Private Heal Private Health Insurance Ombudsman, dental costs for people with private health insurance range from $31.42 to $1419 per item code. Medicare, on the other hand, barely covers any dental services and when it does, it involved jumping through a lot of hoops.

Unfortunately, the current conditions of claiming on Medicare, and the standard costs of dental practises leave many Australians without any other option but to pay for essential services out of their own pocket. The AIHW report states that 56% of people pay directly out-of-pocket for dental costs, despite the fact that about half of all people aged five and over have some level of private dental cover.

Worse still, these high costs see almost 30% of people putting off serious dental work because they feel they cannot afford it. This trend is leading to serious damage and health risks, with research from the Australian Dental Association showing that tooth decay is now one of the most common health problems in the country.

The ADA says that 11 million newly decayed teeth develop each year and 57% of Australians actually expect to develop tooth decay at some stage of their lives. The ADA’s Oral Health Committee Chairman, Dr Peter Alldritt says it’s “concerning that so many Australians accept they or their children will at some point be affected by decay.”

“This doesn’t have to be the case and it certainly shouldn’t make people complacent about their teeth.”

A Swindle For A Smile

But as well as people who will grit their teeth, or grin and bear it, some ways of dealing with dental costs are a bit more creative.

The “dental tourism” industry, for example, is booming in countries like Indonesia, India, Thailand and Vietnam where people can get serious work done on their chompers and a holiday for a fraction of domestic costs.

A Choice report into overseas dental work showed that while there were savings of up to 75%, you have to “go it alone”.

“It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get travel insurance, and with no clear avenues to complain if you aren’t happy with the work, there are risks,” the report surmised.

“Furthermore, the agencies that organise your treatment and travel make it clear they’re only providing the tools and information to allow the customer to make the final choice.”

Besides the risks of something going wrong under the drill, there is also concern that people will end up signing up for a dodgy overseas agency, or falling prey to a scam.

But some people are all too willing to go to extremes when it comes to their teeth. Take the aspiring male model from Brisbane who was arrested in New York a few years ago after swindling a bank into paying for his braces.

As Fairfax reported, the 19-year-old Azeem Ali-Shabazz got a US$286,648 business loan from Sovereign Bank after falsely claiming he was the owner of CW Capital Asset Management.

“Ali-Shabazz, who was living in Queens and wanted money to get braces for his teeth, said he was promised $US1500 by three men if he participated in the bogus loan application,” the Fairfax report said.

Apart from wanted a “million dollar smile”, Ali-Shabazz didn’t even have much wrong with his teeth. And he is not alone in wanting to fix something that isn’t broken.

The widespread introduction of teeth whitening products and the growing commercial side of dentistry has also seen an increase in cosmetic dental procedures that could cost more than they are worth.

Some shopping centres even have pop-up whitening surgeries – a quick fix for the time-starved but self-conscious smilers out there. Teeth, along with many other visible body parts, now face more pressure to be perfect.

A 2006 report for America’s ABC News highlighted just how much people will pay for cosmetic procedures: from whitening to braces, veneers or even extractions to cover imperfections, it is a billion dollar industry.

Unfortunately, the demand also means that quality could be sacrificed, with one cosmetic dentist telling the ABC that problems with these procedures could add a lot of money to the initial costs.

Dr Ronald Goldstein said cosmetic corrections cost between US$10 billion to $12 billion per year due to a quick or cheap-fix approach.

“Dentistry is an art and a science. You can’t just have the art. You can’t just have the science. It’s a combination of both. So function becomes paramount.”

It is a sentiment that holds true whether the goal is superficial improvements or essential dental work.

Teeth are, after all, a part of people that is seen and used every day. So while the costs for different procedures can be high, making the dentist a priority should lead to longer-lasting smiles (and only temporary frowns).

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