Hygienists are in a great position to help patients understand their options when it comes to paying for dental care.
Americans are feeling the pain of inflation. Costs of housing, food, fuel, and other essentials keep climbing.1 In response to rising inflation rates, some individuals are cutting back on anything that can possibly be considered a discretionary expense. Unfortunately, some do not view dental care as the essential health service that we know it to be.
The cost of dental care has not risen significantly due to inflation.2 Between 2021 and 2022, the average inflation rate for dental services was 1.17% per year, compared with the overall inflation rate of 3.76% during the same period.2
Despite this, nearly half (48%) of insured Americans and 65% of the uninsured have skipped dental visits or recommended procedures because of cost.3 This is not a good idea from a health standpoint. During the pandemic, it became clear that postponing cleanings and checkups could have a detrimental impact on oral health.4
Financial Realities and Dental Care Needs
Hygienists are in a great position to help patients understand their options when it comes to paying for dental care. Providing this support to patients in addition to educating them about oral hygiene is the perfect combination of guidance. Although they need to know what is necessary to maintain or regain their oral health, they also need to know that they can access that care financially and how they can do so.
Dental hygienists know the true cost of skipping regular checkups and cleanings, but patients may not have a clear understanding of the impact a year or two of delayed preventive care can have on their health, budget, and life.
Poor oral health has long been associated with medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and higher risks in pregnancy. Oral health issues, such as periodontitis, may also make it more difficult and costly to manage conditions such as diabetes.5 The longer that individuals delay getting basic care, the more likely they are to need expensive restorative treatments, which they may also have to postpone due to financial challenges. Dental professionals know this can be a vicious cycle.
When individuals’ budgets are seriously strained, they must make hard choices. Merely telling them about the cost and health impacts of delaying preventive care will not help them pay for it, especially if they are uninsured. This makes the need for education on ways to lower out-of-pocket costs critical.
Helping Patients Understand Their Cost-Saving Options
Insurance often covers preventive care at 100%. But almost a quarter (23%) of the population, about 74 million Americans, had no dental coverage as of 2019, based on the most recent publicly accessible data.6 The true number could now be higher, considering that an estimated 6 million Americans lost their dental insurance during the pandemic.7
But your patients do have options for reducing the cost of their dental care, enabling them to finish treatment plans and live healthier lives. Some of the choices, such as dedicated credit cards and dental savings plans, require your practice to become a participating provider, which could help you feel more confident about recommending those options. You may not want to take the responsibility of recommending that individuals apply for loans or credit lines—you are not a financial adviser—but you can certainly educate patients on all the available options and recommend they talk to a financial professional or conduct their own research.
Here are some of the choices.
In-house Dental Practice Memberships—Your practice might offer membership plans to patients. For a recurring annual or monthly fee, patients receive a package of free and discounted services. A typical plan might include free preventive care and reduced fees on restorative and/or cosmetic care. The practice will likely need management software to administer the plans; it is critical to ensure that your state allows you to offer these plans because some states have restrictions.8
Dental Savings Plans—These plans are intended to meet the needs of those who are uninsured or underinsured. Plan members receive preset discounted rates on virtually all dental treatments from more than 140,000 participating dentists nationwide within 1 to 3 business days of joining a plan. Dental savings plans do not limit how often a plan can be used or how much a patient can save in a year, and they even include current oral health issues to help individuals get the care they need without delay. With no administrative burden or paperwork, these plans can be a turnkey solution for practices when it comes to helping patients afford quality care.
Short-term Loans or Credit Lines—Your patients may want to speak with their financial adviser or bank/credit union professional to discuss their options for financing dental care. Although a loan may not be possible for everyone, some patients may not even consider it when thinking about how to pay for their dental needs, so it may be worth bringing up. Note that interest costs may make this a less than perfect option for your patients, depending on their credit situation.
Health Care Credit Cards—Some practices accept dedicated health care credit cards, which provide qualified individuals with the option to extend payments over time. Typically, the required minimum credit score would be around 590 although it may go as high as the mid-600s. Interest costs tend to be low if your patients pay back quickly but may increase over time. Encourage patients to read the terms carefully.
Keeping Patients (and Their Budgets) Healthy
Right now, patients may feel that the cost of care (and just about everything else) is painfully high. As you consider ways to help your patients afford their treatment plans, remember this: Educating patients and making it easier for them to access affordable options can be a profitable strategy for the practice, as well as a great way to help members of your community get the care they need, and deserve, during tough financial times.