2007 October 14 Sunday
Dental Care Costs Rising

Dental costs are rising more rapidly than inflation and the percentage of people getting dental care is dropping.

A federal survey shows that 27 percent of adults without insurance saw a dentist in 2004, down from 29 percent in 1996, when dental fees were significantly lower, even after adjusting for inflation. For adults with private insurance, the rate was virtually unchanged, at 57 percent, up from 56 percent. Since 1990, the number of dentists in the United States has been roughly flat, about 150,000 to 160,000, while the population has risen about 22 percent. In addition, more dentists are working part time.

Notice the point above about more dentists working part time. That's probably at least in part due to a rising number of women working as dentists. Women work fewer hours than men on average. So when the number of training slots remains the same but more slots are given to women the effect is to decrease the supply of workers available.

Curiously, for those men who still manage to win a slot in dental school the effect is to raise their income. So the men who don't make it into dentistry make less money than they would have but the men who still manage to win a spot in a dental school make more. Yet another reason why inequality is rising. It really pays to be a winner. Try to avoid losing.

The inflation-adjusted cost of dentistry is rising.

Partly as a result, dental fees have risen much faster than inflation. In real dollars, the cost of the average dental procedure rose 25 percent from 1996 to 2004. The average American adult patient now spends roughly $600 annually on dental care, with insurance picking up about half the tab.

Dentistsí incomes have grown faster than that of the typical American and the incomes of medical doctors. Formerly poor relations to physicians, American dentists in general practice made an average salary of $185,000 in 2004, the most recent data available. That figure is similar to what non-specialist doctors make, but dentists work far fewer hours.

Since fewer dentists are getting trained now than in the early 1980s (a decline of over 20%) the number of dentists will actually decrease in coming years as many practicing dentists retire. So if you are thinking about getting dental work done best to get it done sooner. It will probably cost less now than in a few years from now. Another alternative is to get dental work done in another country if you have any plans for travel to countries with lower dental costs.

The article reports that pediatricians are applying flouride varnish to baby teeth so that poor parents can avoid the need to see dentists. Great idea. Avoiding cavities is the best outcome. Also, we could make much more use of cheaper dental technicians like other countries do.

Outside the United States, more than 50 countries, including some western European nations, now allow technicians called dental therapists to drill and fill cavities, usually in children.

One does not need all the knowledge of a dentist to do the drilling and filling of cavities. A dental caries vaccine would be a great way to cut the need for dentistry as well.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 October 14 06:46 PM  Economics Health


Comments
Rob said at October 15, 2007 6:03 AM:

I mentioned the fact that a greater proportion of women work part time in a thread on Salon related to medicine. I pointed out that as medicine becomes more female, the supply of doctor-hours declines. As women get a disproportionate amount of healthcare, reducing the supply of medicine has a greater effect on women.

I think every response used a bad word, but none managed to refute the argument. I think a very small fraction of the left is even willing to consider microeconomic reasoning. I don't know about the right, as I avoid them.


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