Why are dental procedures so expensive?

woman getting teeth cleaned at dentist office
The best way to avoid costly dental procedures is to take good care of your teeth -- brush and floss daily and get regular professional cleanings.

While most people wouldn't mind a brighter or straighter smile, it's pretty rare to find someone who actually enjoys visiting the dentist, even for basic cleanings. More than one-third of Americans did not see a dentist in 2009, according to a Gallup-Healthways poll. For many, the discomfort of having a veritable stranger taking metal picks, tubes, scrapers and other tools to their wide-open mouths is too much to bear. And given the country's ever-tightening financial waistband, there's another aspect of seeing the dentist that's equally daunting: the bill [source: Marcus].

Those who have visited a dentist -- or considered it -- in recent years know that even the most basic dental procedures can be quite costly. Dental fillings can range from more than $100 to nearly $300 each, depending on the size of the filing, while more invasive and time-consuming procedures like a crown or molar root canal go for about $1,000 per tooth [sources: Butler, SmartaHealth, The Wealthy Dentist].


There are a number of reasons why dental procedures are so expensive. First, services are performed by trained professionals. Dentists are doctors who go through many years of college, dental school and specialized (read: expensive) training. Like many other professionals -- lawyers, accountants, expert mechanics -- dental services are priced accordingly.

The big boys, of course, play with big toys. The tools on hand at a general dentistry practice include highly specialized equipment that is not only pricey to purchase, but also to maintain. Film X-ray machines cost upwards of $20,000, and newer digital models go for $10,000 to $15,000 more. A simple dental chair with the necessary light, trays and hookups, meanwhile, costs about $10,000. This, of course, doesn't take into account the costs of surgical tools, as well as the anesthesia and other medications used in procedures such as root canals and filings. Additionally, dentists often turn to third-party labs and other dental product companies for things like crowns and dentures, which can also drive up the costs of certain procedures [source: KAB Dental].

Yet tools, drugs and lab work aren't even the most costly part of doing business for many dental professionals. Dentists, like all other doctors and healthcare providers, must carry a large amount of malpractice insurance to operate -- $ 3 million in Connecticut, for example [source: Connecticut General Assembly].

If the thought of all of this has you reaching for your toothbrush and floss, read on to learn about options for managing your dental costs.


Ways to Cut Dental Procedure Costs

For those who'd rather not spend an arm and a leg to keep their teeth healthy, there are a few ways to cut dental costs. The most popular is dental insurance, which is similar to general insurance and offers options like traditional indemnity plans, as well as preferred provider and health maintenance plans. Most policies pay for preventive care like checkups but cover only a portion of higher-cost procedures like root canals and orthodontic work. If you're considering dental insurance, you should clarify the procedures covered and determine whether your current dentist (if you have one) accepts the insurance [sources:Payne,Konrad].

Certain dental costs can be paid for through a flexible spending account, which doesn't reduce the cost of the procedure itself, but instead works like a savings account to pay for medical costs. The account is set up through your employer, who sets aside a designated amount of your pretax paycheck to go toward medical and dental expenses [source: Payne].


In addition to these savings, people looking for low-cost dental care can often find it at their local dental school, which typically offers affordable care provided by dental students who are supervised by dentist instructors. New York University's Dental Faculty Practice, for example, serves more than 350,000 patients in greater New York City at rates lower than most local private practices. Generally, dental school patients can expect to pay as little as 30 percent of what they would for the same services at a traditional dental practice [sources: NYU, Konrad].

Finally, there are no better weapons in the fight against exorbitant dental costs than your toothbrush, floss and regular professional cleanings. Brushing and flossing can help prevent plaque buildup and cavities, and other problems that do arise can be nipped in the bud at your cleanings [source: Konrad].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Butler, Sarah Lorge. "Is Your Dentist Ripping You Off?" Moneywatch.com. April 15, 2011. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://moneywatch.bnet.com/saving-money/blog/family-finance/is-your-dentist-ripping-you-off/4240/
  • Connecticut General Assembly. "Substitute Senate Bill No. 392." March 30, 2010. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/FC/2010SB-00392-R000206-FC.htm
  • KAB Dental. "Large Dental Equipment." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.kabdental.com/dental-equipment/x-ray-panoramic/x-ray-p-manufacturer.htm
  • Konrad, Walecia. "How to Manage Dental Costs, With or Without Insurance." The New York Times. Sept. 4, 2009. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/05/health/05patient.html
  • Marcus, Mary Brophy. "Many Americans Say They Forgo Routine Dental Care." USA Today. March 11, 2009. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-03-10-dental-skip_N.htm
  • New York University (NYU) College of Dentistry. "Patient Information." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.nyu.edu/dental/patientinfo/info.html
  • Payne, January W. "Taking the Bite Out of the Cost of Dental Work." U.S. News and World Report. Feb. 14, 2008. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2008/02/14/taking-the-cost-out-of-the-bite
  • SmartaHealth. "Cost of Filings." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://smartahealth.com/howmuchdo_fillings_cost.html
  • Sweeney, Camille. "More Fun Than Root Canals? It's the Dental Vacation." Feb. 7, 2008. (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/07/fashion/07SKIN.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1319248851-65S56C5NjR2DwapD3aNp6A
  • The Wealthy Dentist. "Cost of a Molar Root Canal? $1,000." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://thewealthydentist.com/surveyresults/113-cost-of-root-canals.htm