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Aussies going into debt to pay for dental checks

·4-min read
Composite image of a dental professional working and a pie chart.
Most Australians are unable to cover upfront costs for dental treatments. (Source: Getty/AirSmile)

Australians are cancelling their health insurance and relying on credit cards, loans and buy now, pay later options to cover their dental bills, according to new research.

As cost-of-living pressures mount, just 45 per cent of surveyed by comparison platform AirSmile said they would be able to cover their dental bill in full at the time of treatment, with only 19 per cent relying on health insurance rebates.

Yet almost double that number of people (36 per cent) would draw on lines of credit, ask friends or family to pay for them, and even withdraw from their super to afford essential checkups and procedures.

How patients are paying for the dentist:

  • 13 per cent would pay with their credit card

  • 8 per cent would get a personal loan for larger bills

  • 7 per cent would use a buy now, pay later service

  • 5 per cent would get family and friends to help pay for expensive treatments

  • 2 per cent would draw on their super

  • 1 per cent would refinance their mortgage.

Even those with higher-than-average incomes are struggling to pay for procedures up front.

AirSmile found 49 per cent of respondents earning more than $100,000 a year would borrow funds or use lines of credit to pay for dental treatment.

Stock image of a dentist inspecting a woman's mouth.
Australians spent $9.5 billion on dental services in 2019-20. (Source: Getty)

Veteran dentist and AirSmile founder Heath Fraser said he’d seen a huge shift in how patients were paying at his own practices in Queensland, with fewer patients seeking health cover rebates.

“Patients have been looking for their own ways to reduce the financial pressure of their dental care,” Fraser said, revealing payment plans were becoming more popular for treatments in the $2,000 price bracket.

“More patients are also asking whether we offer buy now, pay later services for treatments as little as $100-$200. I have had a number of patients disclose they took a loan for treatments in the $5,000 price bracket.”

He said the trend suggested Australians had stopped trusting health insurance to make an effective dent in their bills, with 15 per cent cancelling their cover in the past two years.

Aussies delay dental checks as costs rise

The findings, which were derived from an independent panel of 1,008 Australians, also showed four in 10 people were ditching the dentist altogether due to rising costs.

The costs of dental services have jumped 2 per cent each year over the past decade, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, with Australians spending a staggering $9.5 billion at the dentist in 2019-20.

Photo of AirSmile founder Dr Heath Fraser.
Veteran dentist and AirSmile founder Heath Fraser has warned against delaying dental treatment. (Source: Supplied)

The average cost of a dental examination, scale, clean and fluoride treatment averages $215, although prices can vary across states and territories, with ACT residents paying 100 per cent more than SA and WA residents.

Patients urged to shop around

Fraser raised concerns about the long-term health impacts of avoiding dental treatment, and urged patients to instead discuss their options with their dentist before going to “great lengths” to borrow money.

“I often work with my own patients who may be doing it tough by finding ways to temporarily lower treatment costs or provide a longer period for them to pay in instalments that buy now, pay later services don’t currently offer without an additional fee,” he said.

“We also stage treatments for some patients, to stagger a treatment over a longer period of time. This can also allow us to capture two health fund entitlement periods, helping reduce gap costs for the patient.”

But Fraser said the most effective way to cut costs was to shop around before booking a treatment.

“The price of dental treatments can vary greatly,” he said.

“A simple filling, for example, can range anywhere between $130 and $283, while a single root canal can cost between $950 and $2,000. And braces can set Australians back between $6,000 and $9,500.”

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