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Cost of living chaos: Postponing dental appointments will lead to major health issues in Australia

Australians are ditching their dentists in a desperate attempt to tighten their budgets amid soaring inflation – but experts warn postponing essential checkups could cost them their health in years to come.

A recent survey revealed 71 per cent of Australians have considered putting off dental checkups as the cost of living continues to climb – just as they did when the pandemic began.

And according to veteran dentist Dr Heath Fraser, surgeries around the country are already seeing a huge shift in patients’ bookings.

Dr Heath Fraser said surgeries around the country are already seeing a huge shift in their patients’ habits

‘I expected to see a change in cosmetic appointments but the drop in preventative care has shocked me,’ he said.

‘I have been doing this for 16 years, including through the global financial crisis, and this is the quietest it has ever been.’ 

In just four weeks his Queensland practice has seen a drop of 20-30 per cent for checkups – which should be completed twice a year.

‘After Covid people became super health conscious – we were telling people they couldn’t get in to see anyone for months. Now you can get in on the same day.’

Delaying dental checkups can lead to hefty bills later down the track at best, according to Dr Fraser, at worst it can decrease a patient’s life expectancy.

‘There have been long-term studies which looks at the correlation between how many teeth someone has and how long they live,’ he said.

What are the long-term effect of skipping checkups? 

Plaque build up: When plaque builds up teeth are more susceptible to cavities. Plaque build-up can be avoided with bi-annual professional cleans. 

Tooth decay: Small cavities don’t ‘fix themselves’ and will continue to grow, according to Dr Fraser. Left too long and a costly root canal could be needed. Extractions could also be called for – which means you could be up for an expensive replacement down the track.

Gum disease: At its worst gum disease can lead to a patient losing all of their teeth. Gum disease is often painless and requires a trained eye to diagnose. It can also be expensive to fix once it has taken hold. Gum disease is also linked to diabetes and heart disease.

Poll

Would you delay a dental checkup due to the rising cost of living?

  • No way! 0 votes
  • Yes, but for less than 12 months. 0 votes
  • Yes, for more than a year. 0 votes
  • I only go to the dentist when I have pain. 0 votes

The study found losing teeth prematurely can shave years of an adult’s life as well as impact their quality of life.

‘The other thing people have to worry about is gum disease which they often can’t feel,’ he said.

When left too long gum disease increases people’s risk of diabetes and heart failure and can also lead to teeth falling out or needing to be extracted.

‘Preventative care can catch gum disease and cavities before they present a real problem,’ he said.

‘And it is often the difference between saving a tooth and losing one.

The average cost of a dental checkup and clean is $200, according to Dr Fraser, who wants people to see the practice as essential and not a luxury.

Heath says people should shop around when it comes to dental work - because treatment and consultation costs can vary hugely between practices

Heath says people should shop around when it comes to dental work – because treatment and consultation costs can vary hugely between practices 

‘The dental industry has a PR problem,’ he admitted.

‘When you break it down it is all about the sense of affordability, we are seen as an expensive, discretionary service rather than a necessity.’ 

The inherent un-affordability of dental work becomes more complicated when a mandatory checkup uncovers a major problem.  

The rising cost of living means more people will feel they have to go with the cheaper option when it comes to dental care. 

‘Instead of spending $1700 on something like a root canal, which will save the tooth, people may get them extracted,’ he said.

Gum disease is often painless and hard to detect by the untrained eye until it is too late - he explained

Gum disease is often painless and hard to detect by the untrained eye until it is too late – he explained

This can lead to heavy costs down the track.

‘Sometimes we get people who need to get dentures or $40,000 worth of implants because they didn’t look after their teeth in their 20s,’ he explained.

But instead of opting for a cheap extraction, or avoiding work altogether Dr Fraser recommends people shop around, ask for a discount and see if their dentists have a ‘buy now pay later scheme’.

‘Spreading out the cost can make it more affordable, these plans are often interest free too,’ he explained.

Health insurance can also help, he said, and people with health insurance have no excuse when it comes to skipping appointments.

‘If they think they can’t afford a trip to the dentist for a checkup, even with insurance, then they should checkout gap-free clinics,’ he said.

The dentist has seen what happens when even the most health-conscious patients decide to skip check-ups.

Dr Fraser’s top tips for affordable dental treatment:

1. Look for no-gap dentists

As many insurance policies have caps on the cost you can claim back, treatments often leave patients with out-of-pocket expenses. Dental clinics operating with a ‘no gaps’ dental policy cover this extra amount, ensuring that as a patient you won’t have to pay any extra expenses for dental treatments. Your health insurer will have a list of no gap dentists in your city.

2. Shop around to find health cover with a good dental rebate

Rebates can vary considerably between insurance providers. To ensure you are receiving the best value for your circumstances, health insurance comparison websites can show you the policies with the strongest offerings. NIB, for instance, provides a full rebate on general medical treatments such as periodic oral examination, with a scale, clean and fluoride treatment, at up to $450 per year.

3. Get on a payment plan or access your super

Many dentists offer a buy-now-pay-later option for larger bills. You may also be eligible to access your superannuation to fund urgent dental treatments, including braces, crowns, implants, orthodontics and periodontics.

4. Budgeting

Putting money aside for essential medical services such as dentistry should be as much of a priority as budgeting for other fundamentals like a house deposit or car. The average dental checkup in Sydney is $200. Foregoing two café-bought coffees every week and putting away the extra $8 should cover two trips to the dentist every year, without any private insurance. Cutting down on smoking or alcohol consumption is another great way to put dental money aside – a replacement that is much better for your health.

5. Ask for a discount

Dentists may be sympathetic to your need for healthcare on a tight budget. It could also be worth asking if they offer discounts for referring a friend, or for cash payments.

6. Shop around to find the most competitive dental services

Free marketplace comparison platforms are growing across a plethora of consumer services – including dental. Comparison websites and booking services such as AirSmile source quotes from local dental clinics and enable you to book your appointment.

 It is also important to look after your teeth between checkups, he explained.

People should be brushing twice-per-day, flossing and using mouthwash.

Dr Fraser recommends using a fluoride-based toothpaste and mouthwash. He also recommends avoiding carbonated drinks, including sparkling water and waiting at least 30 minutes before brushing your teeth after eating.

During the Covid shutdowns and hysteria around catching the disease before vaccines were available some of his most devoted clients decided to take a break. 

‘I had one patient for ten years, when I first saw her she had really bad gum disease we got on top of it and now, after two years without a checkup, we are back at square one.’ 

‘She is going to need a $1200 gum treatment or her teeth will fall out,’ he said.

There has long been a link between financial stress and oral health, he explained.

The issue is just spreading from select lower socioeconomic communities into the working class and seemingly ‘well off’ families. 

Can Aussies afford dental work? 

The rising costs of living means up to 71 percent of Australians will avoid dental work for at least 12 months, according to the AirSmile survey.

When asked how much they could afford to spend on dental in the next 12 months, more than half (54 per cent) of respondents said up to two preventative visits in a year, at approximately $400 in total. 

A third (32 per cent) could afford $1000-2000 worth of dental treatments, while 14 per cent said they could afford $5000 or more in dental work. 

· Aussies are deprioritising dental check ups, cleans and cosmetic work

· 54% say they can’t afford dental beyond consultations

· 41% believe health cover makes little difference to dental bills

· 40% would delay cosmetic dental surgery including bonding, whitening and veneers

· 32% would delay straightening using braces or aligners

· 31% would delay removal of a non-painful wisdom tooth

· 30% would delay the extraction of a non painful tooth 

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