How to Reduce the Cost of Basic Dentistry

Opinion/Editorial by Dr. David Swann, MLA Calgary-Mountain View

Albertans understand that dentists operate as private businesses and are free to charge whatever the market will bear. However, with approximately 20 per cent of Albertans lacking access to preventive dental care and treatment, something needs to change.

The recent release by the Alberta Dental Association and College (ADAC) of a fee guide may assist some patients to negotiate, but this is not a solution. There is a large disconnect between the ADAC proposals and the expectations of the government, the public and a growing number of dentists including an emerging movement called Alberta Dentists for Change (ADFC.com).

So, the question remains: how can we make dental services affordable for all?

First, the excuse that it is more expensive to operate in Alberta just doesn’t cut it anymore. While most people understand cost pressures in terms of staff salaries, there is little public sympathy for these concerns given a health ministry review indicated, not only are Alberta’s dental fees the highest in the country, but our dental hygienist fees are the highest in North America. Like many, I am outraged by the fact that cleaning and scaling services can be billed at a rate of $280 per hour!

Next, dental advertising rules should be liberalized. Dentists should be allowed to advertise more competitive pricing (with checks on false advertising of course), but the promotion of special rates is banned, even if they’re aimed at lower-income Albertans. Current codes also prohibit ‘claims of superiority’ or expertise unless the dentist is a recognized specialist. This prevents general dentists from offering reduced fees with demonstrated extra training in areas such as jaw pain and minor orthodontics. The Competition Bureau has already reviewed these advertising rules and suggested changes.

The government also needs to seriously consider separating the Alberta Dental Association and the College. The Association’s mandate is to protect and promote the dental business and the interests of dentists; the College’s role is regulatory, overseeing matters related to licensing, professional conduct and quality of care. There is a built-in conflict of interest here, which is why many other professions have separated these two functions. An independent College that is less concerned about protecting industry profits may be more willing to produce a guide that is better aligned with the public interest.

Finally, the NDP government must expand publicly-funded dental services through community clinics to meet the growing needs of thousands of children and low-income Albertans. These clinics have been crucial for providing basic dental needs, but simply have not kept pace with population demand. Improved dental health will prevent serious health complications later on, and reduce pressures on our already overburdened health care system.

The clock is ticking for both the profession and the government to show genuine leadership that will finally make basic dental prevention and treatment services affordable for all Albertans.