Helping Patients Get Affordable Dental Care: Good for Them and Good for You

by Dr. Charles Sutera, DMD, FAGD

Let’s face it, dentistry is expensive.

And if you think you can’t afford dental care, it can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the longer you hold off going to the dentist, the more expensive and out of reach it can get.

When patients have an escalating amount of dental problems, the situation can be overwhelming. It’s taxing. Emotionally, physically, and financially.

The word is exhausted. That’s the state of mind. And it’s not at all unusual for new patients to come in and actually say, “Doc, I’m done. I just want all my teeth out.”

Financial stress can play tricks on our minds. It can make us make silly decisions in the present. It can trick us into sacrificing our future. When patients feel that way, what they really should be thinking is, how can I make this work best for me?

And dental practices should be thinking, how can I help?

With economies tanking under the weight of a global pandemic, unemployment at historic highs, now is the perfect time to get serious about that last question.

Studies show that numerous people across the United States are in or have been in financial stress. And it’s not a minimum wage problem. It affects high earners too. One in four adults graduating college do not have enough income to cover their bills without help.

According to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, Canadians spend about $12 billion per year on dental services, but six million people annually avoid dentists because of costs.

How Can Dental Practices Help?

Most dental practices are willing to work with patients to spread out payments, ensure coverage under existing dental plans, and find community resources.

It simply becomes a matter of making people aware that they have options:

Prevention: This really should go without saying, because we all know that one of the best ways to reduce the cost of dental care is through prevention. One way you can encourage people to take care of their oral health is by offering preventative dentistry – with a focus on oral hygiene procedures, which cost less for a practice to provide, practices can offer patients an incredibly valuable healthcare option. Paired with patient education about good oral hygiene they can practice between visits, prevention can be a powerful way to help people.

Phased treatment: Wherever possible, offer patients the option of completing expensive treatments in phases. This can help both patients who have insurance with an annual spend cap as well as patients who have no insurance.

Interest-free plans: Offer patients interest-free payment plans. Though financing dental care through credit cards or loans from financial institutions is an option, your practice can earn a lot of patient loyalty by giving them a payment option that won’t load interest fees on top of already expensive dental care.

Be a patient advocate: Don’t leave patients alone to deal with insurance claims. Your office can ease the patient’s burden by accepting as many types of insurance as possible and pre-vetting any treatment recommendation against the patient’s insurance plan to ensure that they don’t face a huge surprise bill for uncovered costs in the future. Working with insurance companies in this way also ensures that your practice will be paid.

Offer specials and discounts: Promote limited-time offers for lower cost services several times a year so people who have been putting off treatment are encouraged to book appointments. These could be tied into holidays, offered seasonally, or promoted for a specific group of people: late summer for students about to return to school, around Veteran’s Day for service members, or an offering for people with disabilities.

Participate in charity events: Carve out some time to help uninsured or underinsured people in your community. You can partner with local charities to offer free in-office visits, participate in mobile dental clinics, or other activities. Again, while this type of activity helps people in your community, it also boosts your reputation within the community and can generate great patient loyalty.

Offer dental therapist services: If allowed in your state or province, consider employing dental therapists to offer a cost-effective alternative. As therapists earn less than dentists, you can pass on savings to the patients. Allowing therapists to take on routine dental care may provide benefit to both patients and practices. It lowers the cost to patients, and frees up dentists to focus on more complicated—and expensive—procedures.

Be an educator: Help patients and people in the community understand that when dental problems aren’t detected early enough, they can become larger and much more expensive issues like tooth loss and advanced periodontitis. Share oral hygiene tips that can help people stave off tooth decay and gum disease. It can be helpful to frame oral health as an investment both in terms of future health as well as protecting future finances. By offering preventive dentistry and education, dentists can safeguard patients from avoidable exorbitant dental costs.

Be a resource: It can be difficult for lay persons to navigate insurance, let alone find and access low-cost or free dental services. Your office can help by providing information in an easy and accessible way. Once a year, have your staff update it and make sure everyone in your office knows about resources they can share with patients, such as:

Local Health Departments

In the U.S., the Bureau of Primary Health Care, a service of the Health Resources and Services Administration (1-888-Ask-HRSA), supports federally-funded community health centers across the country that provide free or reduced-cost health services, including dental care.

Many Veteran’s hospitals have dental facilities that can provide dental services at a reduced cost. Check out this link to find a VA hospital near you.

Veterans Affairs Canada provides financial support for senior dental care to qualified veterans. They may also reimburse travel costs incurred to receive dental treatments.

In Canada, the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program provides a full range of preventative and restorative dental care to eligible First Nations and Inuit people.

Other dental benefits vary by province and territory in Canada. Visit the Canadian Association of Public Health Dentistry website for programs specific to your area.

Dental Schools

Dental schools  (American Dental Association) can be a good source of quality, reduced-cost dental treatment. Most of these teaching facilities have clinics that allow dental students to gain experience treating patients while providing care at a reduced cost. Experienced, licensed dentists closely supervise the students. Post-graduate and faculty clinics are also available at most schools.

Dental hygiene schools  (American Dental Hygienists’ Association) may also offer supervised, low-cost preventive dental care as part of the training experience for dental hygienists.

In Canada, 10 dental schools have committed to improving access to care. The dental faculties at the University of ManitobaUniversity of Toronto and Western University have well established programs that provide excellent and affordable dental services at reduced rates.

Clinical Trials

The National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) sometimes seeks volunteers with specific dental, oral, and craniofacial conditions to participate in research studies. Researchers may provide study participants with limited free or low-cost dental treatment for the particular condition they are studying. To find out if there are any NIDCR clinical trials that you might fit into, go to “NIDCR Studies Seeking Patients.” For a complete list of all federally funded clinical trials, visit

Provincial, Territorial, State and Local Resources

Your provincial, territorial, state or local health department may know of programs in your area that offer free or reduced-cost dental care. Call your health department to learn more about their financial assistance programs.

United Way

The United Way may be able to direct you to free or reduced-cost dental services in your community. Look for local United Way chapters on the United Way website.

Medicare,  Medicaid, CHIP 

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) administers MedicareMedicaid, and  CHIP in the U.S. CMS (1-800-MEDICARE) can provide detailed information about each of these programs and refer you to state programs where applicable.

We all go through life with barriers and hurdles to cross. Although those challenges may be very powerful in the present, they don’t have to remain in our future.

As a dental professional, you can offer more than dental care; you can offer people a lifeline to a better future.

About the Author

Dr. Charles Sutera , DMD,  FAGD, is a doctor of dental medicine, TMJ specialist, board-certified in moderate dental anesthesiology, and renowned for high profile cosmetic dental reconstructions. He is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry and is the founder of his dental practice, Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction.

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