This is a question I’ve asked myself every Wednesday morning for the last five weeks as I’ve ridden the Q train into Union Square to see a pick-happy third-year dental student at the NYU College of Dentistry. Dental insurance is one luxury I haven’t had in some time, like so many former students, former employees and, well, people these days.
I had just moved back to Brooklyn after a few years in Boston, where I had dutifully forked out $100 or so every few months to minimally maintain my not-so-pearly whites. Now I was back in New York and overdue for a cleaning. I also had a sinking suspicion I might be in for some more. My Boston hygienist said a dental school was a good, cheap and still respectable way to get dental care, and that NYU was the place to go in New York. So there I went.
In terms of treatment, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted a cleaning, X-rays and an exam to determine if I would need a mouth guard to prevent grinding (a possibility my hygienist alluded to in a previous visit). What I also didn’t know, and what I now so wish I had, was that student dental care would take over my life.
For the aforementioned work (yes, I needed the mouth guard and, it turned out, three fillings as well), I’ve now spent upward of 11 hours at the NYU College of Dentistry over five weeks. And after next week’s final visit, 11 will become 13 (each visit is scheduled for two hours, but that doesn’t count delays, of which there have been a few.) And I’m not including travel time here, which was an hour, door to door. Sure there’s travel time to any dentist, but I was foregoing any local options which would have been, at most, a 15 or 20-minute trip. So counting the extra travel, treatment and waiting, let’s call it 24 hours—one full day of dentistry!
Another big question mark with student dentistry is the quality of the care, and I don’t know how well it can be evaluated until something (a filling) does or doesn’t fall out sometime down the road. But let’s go by my experience in the chair. First off, no dental work is pleasant—that’s a given. But there is a range of skill. A friend once described her dentist as having butterfly hands. By that standard, mine has rhinoceros feet. Case in point: My week-four visit was the day the fillings started. After about 20 minutes or so of painful drilling on a lower molar, my student called over a faculty member to check the progress—to see whether the tooth was ready to be filled. Not quite, so a few more minutes of drilling, then another supervisor came over to check again. This one looked at the tooth, turned to my student, and informed him that he would have received an automatic failure on the drilling section of the dental exam (!)
I’m saving the most important question for last–the cost. The total cost will be around $600, for a complete series of X-rays ($95), cleaning ($60), three cavity fillings ($80, $80, $95) and one mouth guard ($200).
How does that compare to a full-fledged dentist? Well, I’ve now (after the fact) checked out two privately-practicing dentists for some perspective. Neither one could give me exact prices without an exam, but Dr. Flatbush Ave. is an in-home practice on a commercial strip in my neighborhood. He charges $35 for the exam, $75 for a cleaning, $100 for the full-mouth X-ray, $65-$120 for each filling, depending on the type (I would have had two around $65, one around $120) and $250 for the mouth guard. So, about $600-$700 here—pretty comparable to my student care. Dr. Madison Ave. is another story: $50 for the exam, $130 for a cleaning, $200 for X-rays, $175-$250 for each filling and $450 for the mouth guard. All told: around $1,400—more than twice my expense.
So is it worth it? If you have a lot of time to spare for your dental hygiene, you have the pain threshold of a rock and if saving a couple, or a few, hundred dollars counts above all else. Otherwise, go out and find that Dr. Butterfly Hands.