With COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, most dental services are available again, even in areas under lockdown in Victoria.
But it's hard to know how big a bite your next visit will take out of your bank account as fees vary a lot from practice to practice.
According to new figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), about 4 in 10 Australians delayed or avoided a trip to the dentist due to cost.
The Australian Dental Association (ADA) surveys dental practitioners each year to provide average price data on more than 120 dental treatments.
According to ADA data from 2019, the average cost of a periodic check-up including an examination, scale and clean and a fluoride treatment is around $215 (dental item numbers 012, 114 and 121).
But there's a wide variation between different dentists – the cheapest will cost you $156 for those three items, and the most expensive will set you back $296.
|Procedure (dental item no)||Average cost*||Range*|
|Comprehensive oral exam (011)||$65||$49–90|
|Periodic oral exam (012)||$58||$41–76|
|X-ray (per exposure) (022)||$44||$30–56|
|Scale and clean (removal of plaque and calculus) (114)||$120||$93–165|
|Fluoride treatment (121)||$37||$22–55|
|Fissure sealing (per tooth) (161)||$59||$40–88|
|Simple (non-surgical) tooth extraction (311)||$191||$144–280|
|Prep of root canal (chemo-mech) – one canal (415)||$287||$200–425|
|Prep of root canal (chemo-mech) – add canal/same tooth (416)||$142||$93–220|
|Filling – anterior tooth – 1 surface (521)||$156||$110–215|
|Filling – anterior tooth – 2 surfaces (522)||$187||$142–255|
|Filling – posterior tooth – 1 surface (531)||$166||$122–220|
|Filling – posterior tooth – 2 surfaces (532)||$206||$161–280|
|Full crown (veneered) – indirect (615)||$1573||$1051–2000|
|Denture (complete maxillary) (711)||$1350||$950–2000|
Prices also depend on where you live
The ADA fee survey shows big price variations for the average cost of dental work depending on where you live across Australia. In general, people in the ACT paid the highest prices and people in SA paid the cheapest prices, followed by WA.
|Treatment||Lowest price||Highest price|
|Tooth extraction||$176 (SA)||$235 (ACT)|
|Filling||$149 (WA)||$183 (ACT)|
|Mouthguard||$175 (Vic)||$292 (ACT)|
|Full crown (veneered)||$1528 (SA)||$1790 (ACT)|
Dentists are free to set their own fees. Unlike medical services covered by Medicare, which have prescribed rebates and for which the AMA provides their members with recommended fees, there are no standard fees for services provided by dentists or other dental professionals in Australia.
Dentists' prices depend on a range of factors – such as location, overheads, experience as well as factors that affect the degree of difficulty and time involved in doing a procedure on a specific patient and differences in the method or materials that are appropriate to each case.
You ultimately have the right to choose whether to go ahead with a particular treatment plan or not, but most of us don't have expertise in dentistry. This makes it hard to know whether a dental practitioner's recommendation is the best course of action or if they're trying to make a profit at your expense.
Dentistry is still unaffordable for many Australians. Research from AIHW in 2013 found that 35% of adults had avoided or delayed going to the dentist due to cost, a figure which has been on the rise since the 1990s.
Unfortunately, dental services are only covered by Medicare under certain circumstances.
Public dental care
Public dental care is available only to a limited segment of the Australian population and waitlists can be long. Eligibility requirements for public dental care vary across states and territories but it is usually available to those with a healthcare or pensioner concession card.
In case of a dental emergency such as a dental condition that causes difficulty with breathing, tooth fracture that exposes a nerve or bleeding that doesn't stop, call your nearest community dental clinic or hospital emergency department.
Free dental care for children
Under the Child Dental Benefit Scheme, children aged between two and 17 are eligible for free basic dental care such as check-ups, fillings, seals, extractions and root canal (up to the value of $1000 over two calendar years) if their parent, carer or guardian receives the Family Tax Benefit Part A or a relevant Australian Government payment.
When it comes to dental costs and private health insurance, there are two elements you'll want to understand in order to choose a provider that offers you the best value for money:
- Rebates: This may be a percentage such as 60% or fixed dollar benefit amount for each item number, and is probably where you'll save the most money.
- Preferred provider networks: Some funds have 'preferred providers'. Using these means you'll pay less in fees and get higher rebates, but it locks you into using particular providers.
To get value for money on your extras insurance you'll need to make sure you're getting more back from the fund than what you're paying them in premiums, which is where rebates come in.
The average rebate available from private health insurers for a regular check-up – periodic exam, scale and clean plus fluoride – is $126. Though how much you get back will depend on your policy – some policies offer as much as 100% of the cost of a check-up.
Some policies offer as much as 100% of the cost of a check-up
Dental rebates vary not only across funds, but also between policies within funds and for the service being claimed. Funds also don't publish the rebates they offer for all items of dental treatment in all circumstances, so check if you need special treatment before you sign up.
Watch out for annual and lifetime limits
In addition to the rebates, you'll also want to check the annual limits for each category (for example, there may be different upper limits for general and major dental work), as well as lifetime limits on particular services (such as orthodontic work). Compare your extras cover.
Expect to pay more to cover major dental work
While nearly all policies will provide rebates for preventative dental care such as check-ups (exam/scale and clean/fluoride), fewer policies are willing to fork out for more expensive work such as braces and crowns. For those policies that do cover major dental work, the premiums will generally be more expensive.
|Procedure||% benefits||$ benefits||$ benefits average|
|Dental exam – periodic (012)||50–100%||$14-100||$36|
|Scale and clean (114)||50–100%||$29-136||$66|
|Tooth extraction (322)||50–100%||$58-340||$129|
|Full crown (615)||50–100%||$225-1518||$672|
|Root canal therapy (417)||50–80%||$70-1200||$146|
|Braces – upper and lower plus retainer (881)||50–100%||$300-3600||$1093|
Some dental practices sign up to be part of a private health insurer's 'preferred provider network' to attract clients (and some dental clinics are even owned by a fund). In return for being listed as a fund's preferred provider, the private health insurer will set the maximum price the dentist can charge the fund's clients. Prices set by the insurance fund for its clients are generally a bit lower than prices charged to other consumers.
Using a fund's preferred provider may save you some money in fees, but the flip side is you may have fewer dental practices to choose from
Using a fund's preferred provider (not all funds have them) may save you some money in fees, but the flipside is you may have fewer dental practices to choose from, or may have to travel a considerable distance to find a preferred provider with your fund, particularly if you live outside the major cities.
The ADA has been taking aim at private health insurers for the market power they're gaining through their preferred provider schemes.
Higher rebates for dental check-ups
In addition to lower negotiated costs at preferred providers, some funds may also offer a higher rebate if you choose a preferred provider.
While Australia's five largest funds (Bupa, HBF, HCF, Medibank and NIB) all have an extensive network of preferred providers, smaller funds often pay the same benefits for all dentists, or only have a handful of preferred providers or dental centres.
Other funds with a network of providers include Australian Unity, GMHBA, Peoplecare and TUH.
The current national evidence-based recommendation for dental check-up frequency is:
"Everyone has different oral health needs and risk levels which should be reflected in the frequency of check-ups. Talk with your oral health professional about yours and how frequently you need to visit for an oral health check."
So why do many dental practices encourage six-monthly check-ups as standard?
The six-monthly recommendation is outdated, says Professor Hans Zoellner, head of oral pathology at the University of Sydney.
This recommendation was questioned as far back as 1977, and more recently, a 2013 Cochrane review found there was insufficient evidence either "to support or refute the practice of six-monthly recalls".
And a review of evidence by the National Oral Health Promotion Clearing House found "no evidence that any particular interval between check-ups is more effective than another, or that six-monthly recalls are more appropriate than other longer intervals".