Price-shopping for a dentist? Don’t overlook qualifications, quality

Price-shopping for a dentist? Don’t overlook qualifications, quality
dentist equipment

“How much does your office charge for a crown?”

Occasionally, we get prospective patients calling our dental office asking these types of questions. This inquiry is fueled by what I consider an increasingly common mentality: perceiving dental services as a commodity, shopping for them like cars or vacuum cleaners.

This commodity-driven mentality assumes that since all dentists have a degree and a license, they must practice similarly, so it makes sense to shop based only on price.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s huge variation among dentists’ skill level, quality, quantity of continuing education they’re committed to, and the quality of the equipment and materials used. There’s a wide spectrum of dental business models, ranging from bustling, HMO-based clinics offering more emergent services to intimate, personalized practices run by one practitioner committed to comprehensive care.

So, what or who is to blame for this growing mentality? Some of it is the inevitable progress of our faster pace, consumer-driven culture. It seems people are more and more in a hurry and want instant gratification.

Marketing for dental services supports this mentality with a huge emphasis on cheap and now. As an example, we’re inundated with full-page newspaper ads for “single visit implants.” Although implant dentistry is such a long-term investment in one’s health, there are those that want to speed it along, to fit in an implant surgery between getting groceries and picking the kids up from school.

Dental insurance companies also fuel the fire. They use UCR (Usual, Customary and Reasonable) systems that amount to mysterious, unexplainable protocols to arrive at the “correct” charge for a given dental service and suggest that anything beyond that is overpriced. What they don’t advertise is that on average, their yearly maximums haven’t increased since the 1970s.

More companies now offer reduced dental insurance coverage to their employees in the form of HMO or PPO-type insurance plans, and these downgrades are often being implemented without the employee’s knowledge.

The incentive for any dentist accepting an HMO plan is to do as little dentistry as possible on as many people as possible. For a dentist to sign on to a PPO, they must accept the fees set by the insurance company which are often dramatically discounted from their regular fees. That dentist now must see more patients, and he has a higher incentive to produce to help alleviate the burden of discounted fees.

Larger and larger dental practices are seeing more and more patients, often offering quick-fix solutions to problems patients don’t own.

It’s challenging to grow meaningful, trusting relationships with your patients when you’re being hurried from one operatory to the next, to keep up with a daunting schedule. Most intelligent people are not going to be OK with being told they “need” a treatment, especially when they are free of symptoms and the dentist hasn’t taken the time to educate them or connect with them on any level.

I believe these negative influences are dehumanizing the profession and inevitably moving dentistry in the direction of mediocrity. It’s hard to expect you’re getting the best dental care available with these external forces of manipulation and control.

As our society continues to move at a feverish pace, I think it’s important to slow down at times and resist some of this “progress.” I know I’m not alone in desiring a more personalized approach to healthcare.

The national healthcare debate is centered on how health care will be financed, who’s going to pay and how much. As a private practitioner who delivers dental healthcare one patient at a time, I feel my resistance to these external influences to maintain the integrity of my practice will continue to be challenged. I believe this value of care is worth protecting.

About this Experts Contributor: Dr. Ken Schweifler is a licensed dentist in Los Altos, Calif. Since 2002, Dr. Schweifler has specialized in crowns and bridges, implants, tooth colored fillings, porcelain veneers, tooth whitening, dentures and general dentistry services. You can follow this contributor on Twitter @KenSchweifler.

As of April 30, 2014, this service provider was highly rated on Angie's List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angie's List for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie's List.