Money & Career

8 ways to lower your next dental bill

By: Rosemary Counter

Photography by © Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by ©

Money & Career

8 ways to lower your next dental bill

By: Rosemary Counter
Poor me! Sore teeth, sour mood, empty pockets. Root canals are always terrible, but a monstrous quote from a fancy downtown Toronto dentist ($2,000-plus for my insurance-less self) made a bad situation even worse. Luckily, a little Nancy Drew action saved the day: I did some research, grabbed a $7 bus ticket and ventured an hour outside the city, where the same procedure cost hundreds less. Here’s everything else I learned about how to take and keep control of your dental bills.

1. Look into dental insurance
If you’re not blessed with coverage through work, paying out-of-pocket can seem like a great excuse to skip or delay regular checkups. “Whereas, if it’s already paid for, you’re going to use it just because you have it,” says David Baker, assistant vice-president of Individual Health Insurance at Sun Life Financial.

Dental insurance is loosely divided into three categories: preventive, orthodontic and restorative. If you’re in good health, a standard health plan can be purchased with an option to get a dental upgrade that includes checkups, cleaning, fillings and even X-rays for less than $40 a month. Buy a family plan to save even more.

2. Practise healthy hygiene at home
Your best defence against scary-size dentist bills is – you guessed it – prevention. “That way, you won’t find yourself in an expensive root canal situation to begin with,” says Dr. Robert MacGregor, a past president of the Canadian Dental Association. It’s elementary school basic, but you should be brushing twice and flossing once daily. Duh, right?

But the Crest and Oral-B Smile Survey found that just 30 percent of Canadians say they diligently follow the brush-floss-rinse system, and only 16 percent actually do. If you’re on the lazy side of this survey, try thinking of the cavities you might be paying for in the future.

Page 1 of 3 -- Discover more budget-friendly dental health tips on page 2
3. Shop around
Why does the same lousy cavity have different price tags at different places? Most provinces publish a fee guide of suggested, but not obligatory, procedure costs. “Practitioners are expected to independently determine their own fees,” says Dr. Harry Hoediono, president of the Ontario Dental Association.

Discrepancies are explained by any number of factors – where the dentist practises, operational costs, skill, expertise. Doing a cost comparison, like I did, is perfectly fine. “If you’re concerned, by all means, get a second opinion,” suggests Hoediono. But remember these wise words: You get what you pay for.

4. Outsource
Is your routine appointment a 25-minute visit with the hygienist and a five-minute exam from the dentist? If so, consider taking your hygiene needs elsewhere, or having the hygienist come to you. New legislation in some provinces allows for safe, qualified and regulated independent hygienists to operate outside the traditional dental office, even making special visits to your home in some cases. And the fees they charge can be lower than those at your dentist's office.

"In Alberta, hygienists can take and read X-rays, see patients under laughing gas, administer freezing and write some prescriptions," says Sally Lloyd, a registered dental hygienist at the Lifetime Smiles Dental Hygiene Clinic in Calgary. Hygienists can’t diagnose tooth decay or perform restorative work, so you'll still need a dentist for checkups, but getting your cleanings elsewhere can help you pocket extra cash.

5. Go on a (dental) diet

Sticking to a healthy diet will prevent some oral-health problems – and the bills that come with them. Bacteria can irritate gums and cause inflammation, which can wreak havoc in the body; it has even been linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. “A tooth is like a sponge, soaking up all the acids on its surface,” says Briana Southward, a nutritionist in Toronto who focuses on periodontal health. “This means the best way to prevent dental disease is through nutrition.”

Skip the sugary stuff, she says. And anything that’s good for the rest of you will also be good for your teeth. Load up on vitamins A, D and K2, and the minerals magnesium, phosphorus and, of course, calcium. You can’t go wrong with milk. Enjoy a refreshing serving with your morning cereal, then another with dinner, and your teeth will thank you. Yogurt with zero to one percent milk fat, cottage cheese, and cheese with seven percent milk fat or less are other smart dairy picks. Broccoli, kale and almonds are also calcium-rich choices.

Page 2 of 3 -- For easy do-it-yourself dental health care tips keeping reading on page 3
6. Befriend your dentist
Instead of going elsewhere, says Hoediono, have a heart-to-heart with your dentist. "They’ll be more than willing to help you find a cost-effective treatment option: That’s part of the job," he says. Most offices offer payment plans, and some even have dental credit cards, which offer a line of credit that’s arranged through your dentist’s office. Patients can also talk with their dentists about bundling their treatments. If you need three fillings, for example, have all of them done at one appointment to save the expense of two extra visits.

7. Go back to school

Massage junkies know this trick: Therapy services can be found at local colleges, performed at a discount by students working under the supervision of a registered therapist. If you don’t mind eavesdropping on a science lesson, a dental student – under the full supervision of a dentist and dental hygienist, of course – may be your new best friend. At the Vancouver College of Dental Hygiene, students do way more than remove stains and plaque.

“A full treatment plan is developed and the client is booked for appropriate follow-ups,” says Kelly Mabey, a clinical supervisor. Fluoride treatments, pit sealants, whitening, sports guards and even dietary consulting are all on the menu, with shockingly low price tags: A basic appointment costs – jaws off the floor now, people – just $27.

8. Do it yourself – Really!

Before you laugh out loud, consider the fact that U.K. pharmacies stock DentaNurse, a first-aid kit for your teeth that temporarily replaces fillings and lost or broken crowns. While dentistry is best left to professionals – don’t even think of going MacGyver on your gums – a creative DIY fix might save you in a pinch.

A warm water and salt gargle acts as a quick bacteria killer to fight infections, says Southward. And what about the stellar reputation of baking soda? “It’s mildly abrasive, so it can polish your teeth,” says Southward. Mix it with a little lime juice to make a paste and lather away.

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This story was originally titled "Take a Bite out of Your Next Dental Bill" in the September 2012 issue.

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Money & Career

8 ways to lower your next dental bill