Biting into dental costs
A ‘grim’ future for the dental industry is forecast as people are cutting back
WHEN THE Government decided to reduce benefits associated with a medical card and pull back on offering free dental services under the PRSI scheme, it was met with considerable opprobrium from consumers and dentists alike. Now, two years on, what impact has it had on the dental profession? And, most importantly, for consumers, has it led to any price drops?
Since January 2010, even if you have the required PRSI contributions, you now only qualify for a free check-up once a year, and gone are the days when you could get reduced cost fillings and a hygienist visit as part of the scheme.
Unsurprisingly, this means that more people are putting off visits to their dentist, fearing that as well as a lot of pain in their mouth, they might also get a nasty shock to their wallet. Similar cuts have also been made to the medical card scheme. As Dr Adrian Dillon, of Dillon Dental in New Ross, Co Wexford, notes, it has made an impact on the sector.
While patient numbers have held up in his practice, he has noticed that people are having less treatment done. In this regard, he has reduced prices on crowns and root canal treatments by about 10-20 per cent.
Other prices, however, have remained static, with a check-up starting at €30. “We never really put up our prices,” Dillon notes, adding that he is “still happy with numbers coming through the door”.
This is not the case everywhere, though. In February, a survey from the Irish Dental Association showed that 86 per cent of dentists saw their turnover fall in 2011, with almost half (49 per cent) recording falls of over 20 per cent. The association is forecasting job losses of up to 1,000 in the sector this year.
It says the future for young graduates in Ireland is “incredibly grim” with only half a dozen or so of the 70 young dentists who graduated in 2011 finding employment here.
Dr Paul Eggleston of Howth Road Dental in Dublin agrees, saying that he doesn’t see “huge prospects” for graduates in Ireland. Nonetheless, in January he left an established practice where he was an associate to set up on his own.
“I had it in mind to open up the new surgery regardless of the economic situation,” he says, adding that while turnover in practices has decreased, there is still business there.
“I don’t think it has been as badly hit as other sectors due to the recession,” he says, but notes that consumers do tend to shop around a bit more now and extras, such as visits to a hygienist, tend to be down.
On top of the challenges posed by the dual impact of State cutbacks and the wider recession, dentists are facing ongoing competition from the dental tourism business, with specialist medical tour companies bringing Irish patients to places like Kusadasi in Turkey, where root canals start at just €100 and crowns at €250.
Dentists, however, are keen to play down this threat.
“We see a little bit of it but it doesn’t affect us. Our patients are quite loyal and there is still value for money in this country. For a local practice like us, it is all about trust and trusting your dentist,” Dillon says.
Eggleston agrees, saying medical tourism is no longer a “huge issue”.
“The North of Ireland was an issue back in 2006 when prices were higher, but now prices have come down to a level that they should be fairly comparative,” he says.
But is he right? According to the Central Statistics Office, prices for dental services fell by just 0.4 per cent in the year to February 2012. However, as Eggleston suggests, industry evidence says otherwise.
According to statistics compiled for The Irish Times by whatclinic.com, a consumer search engine for medical services and facilities, over the past six months the cost of dental services have fallen by about 9 per cent across Ireland, based on a snapshot of 4,416 prices from 238 clinics.
According to whatclinic.com, the price reductions appear to be primarily for the more expensive treatments. Indeed the average cost of dental implants is down by 21 per cent to €1,641; incisor root canals are down 11 per cent to €310; dental crowns are down 7 per cent to €603; and teeth whitening treatments are down 6 per cent, to €289.
In addition to falling prices, consumers are also benefiting from increased price transparency.
While general practitioners were recently criticised by the National Consumer Agency for not displaying prices, dentists appear to have fully embraced last year’s code of practice from the Dental Council that price display should be mandatory in all clinics.
Indeed many now have their own websites, where they provide a detailed breakdown of prices, so you can check before you visit a specific practice. Moreover, other websites, such as the aforementioned whatclinic.com, also give an indication of fees that are being charged.
Not only that, but dentists are also getting increasingly innovative when it comes to attracting and retaining patients – which can only be good for consumers.
Some have introduced dental payment schemes, whereby you pay a fixed amount each month to cover all your expenses, while other dentists have even looked to group purchasing schemes to try to bring in customers, offering cut-price dental examinations and X-rays through operators such as Groupon and Living Social.
So while the dental benefits offered under both the medical card and PRSI schemes will continue to be missed, at least there is some relief for consumers.
A survey from the Irish Dental Association showed that
of dentists saw their turnover fall in 2011, with almost half,
recording falls of over
The association is forecasting job losses of up to
in the sector this year