Dental costs: is the price right?

Why is a trip to the dentist so expensive?
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04.Costs of dentistry


The absence of set prices for dental services makes it difficult to know if your dentist is overcharging. Unlike the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Psychological Society, the ADA doesn’t publish a recommended fee schedule, claiming such a practice would breach the Australian Competition and Consumer Act. However, while price fixing is illegal, associations can provide recommended fee schedules – as long as they’re not mandatory. 

How much a dentist earns depends on whether they work in the private or public field and how many hours they work, says Alexander. Dentistry is costly for the consumer because it’s “very expensive to run a practice,” she says. Each clinic is set up as a mini operating theatre, requiring equipment such as a dental chair (about $55,000), X-ray machines (roughly $6500) and autoclaves ($15,000). Annual registration fees and insurance are an extra cost, but staff is the most expensive part of the business, with up to three assistants often required. 

The average income a dentist brought into a practice was $347,000 in 2009/10, while the costs of running a dental practice take 60-72% of total income. Given these figures, we don’t believe the average dentist’s income is exorbitant, or that most dentists are trying to rip you off. Nevertheless, dental care is costly, and large price discrepancies exist. The good news for consumers is that price increases for dentistry services seem to be slowing. According to the ADA, treatment prices increased 1.3% in 2012 - down from five years ago, when prices increased at around 5% per year. 

Who pays? 

In many other OECD countries, there are a range of national health schemes or compulsory social insurance funds that subsidise dental care and, in some cases, provide basic dental care for free. But in Australia, unless you’re eligible for dentistry in the public system, it’s the consumer who pays. 

Of the $7.9bn spent on dental care in Australia in 2010/11, about 58% came from out-of-pocket expenses paid by individuals. Private health insurance covers relatively little, with only 14% of dental expenditure coming from insurers, while the remaining 30% was paid for by federal or state governments. 

Although public dental care is only available to a limited proportion of the Australian population, it has a waiting list of about 400,000 people. And dentistry is still unaffordable for many Australians. A study by the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health of more than 1000 people found about 65% of us were at least somewhat anxious about the cost of going to the dentist, despite 56% having dental insurance. It also revealed almost half of Australians avoid or delay going to the dentist due to cost.  


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