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Dental Visits When Budgets Are Tight: What’s Worth It?

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Lost your dental insurance? Here's how to make dental visits count for your family while you're in between jobs.

by Dr. Burhenne

Dental Visits When Budgets Are Tight: What's Worth It?

Dental Visits When Budgets Are Tight: What’s Worth It? Question: Long story short is I lost my job and now don’t have dental insurance for my family as well as less money to spend on dental care. I wanted to take the family in for a dental cleaning and an exam but I was told the cleaning and exam were pointless without getting expensive x-rays because the dentist could basically tell nothing about what was going on with our teeth without the x-rays.

It seemed to me that the cleaning and visual exam would be better than nothing, right? I was told no – by two different dentists. Not to knock the value of x-rays, but really? Why even bother paying for the cleaning and exam, then? Would it be useful to just have the x-rays taken without the cleaning and exam? The family has good oral hygiene and has had little to no plaque build-up at previous cleanings. Am I putting my children’s dental health at significant risk (ages 8 & 10) by pushing the appointments out another 6 months to a year while we save money for all this? Their last dental x-rays were done two years ago.

– Atana M.

Answer: Atana: You are between the proverbial molar and hard place. Many dentists do this to protect themselves from dental malpractice. They’ve been taught in dental school that if they miss finding a cavity via the clinical exam and do not view a x-ray that they may have committed malpractice. I would not disagree with that notion.

Tort reform in regards to medical/dental malpractice has long been a controversial issue, wedging its way in between the patient and doctor. However, what happens to the “in-between” patients like your children is difficult to stomach.

I would have viewed the x-rays from two years ago and based on a thorough clinical exam, made a “threat” assessment for potential decay.

What do your kids eat? How well do they brush their teeth? X-rays are very important in an making a complete assessment, but there is a controversy as to how many and how often one should take x-rays – especially on developing children.

I would have taken x-rays (because two years is a long time for 8 and 10 year olds) and not done the cleaning. This combo essentially would have cost the same as the cleaning/exam combo.

I’d rather know what’s brewing inside the teeth, as a root canal is non-reversible. In dental school we used to stop brushing our teeth to induce gingivitis to study it and see how quickly we could reverse it. My point is that not getting a cleaning once is not as bad as missing a deep cavity that will irreversibly damage the tooth.

Gingivitis is reversible – deep cavities are not. I’d get on the phone and call around and see if you can find a dentist that can work out a payment plan, or thinks out of the box and really cares about your children’s health.

Mark Burhenne DDS

read next: Little Known Ways to Make Sure You Never Get Ripped Off at the Dentist

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