Of pain and dentistry

I must admit, with a tinge of embarrassment, that my dental care is supplied, not by our beloved NHS but by a private dentist, courtesy of Denplan. The reason for this is that some years ago I suffered a sudden severe bout of toothache and visited several NHS dentists in search of alleviation and cure. None of these dentists was able to diagnose the problem and all suggested I “…go home, take a couple of paracetamol and come back if the pain persists” – hardly a helpful response as the pain had already persisted for several days.

In desperation, I phoned a dentist I had used years ago but who had since abandoned the NHS and set up a private practice in the West End. He was sympathetic but couldn’t see me as he was about to depart on holiday and was only in the surgery tidying up. He did, however, recommend another private dentist near where I lived. I rang the number and was given an immediate appointment.

Used to the NHS, I was agreeably surprised by the surgery. The waiting room was clean and comfortable and contained a little igloo playroom for children. Instead of being full to bursting point, it was quiet because the well-scheduled patients arrived at intervals and were called into the consulting room after a few minutes’ wait.

When it was my turn, I entered the consulting room in a sceptical frame of mind, expecting the usual quick non-diagnosis followed by advice to take two paracetamol and by a bill for £50.

What actually happened was that I was invited to sit in the famous reclining chair while the dentist sat down near me on a stool and engaged me in conversation. Through the haze of pain I realized that he was trying to calm me down while eliciting a few basic facts about my problem. This made an agreeable change from the NHS dentists who usually couldn’t get rid of me quick enough. When eventually he proceeded to examine me, he said “Tell me how this feels” and tapped a tooth. I nearly jumped out of the chair. He smiled and said that I had a dying root that needed to be killed.

I enquired, rather acerbically, why the NHS dentists had not been able to diagnose the problem that he had detected so quickly. “Did they tap your tooth?” he enquired with a smile. “No,” I admitted. “Well, there you have it,” he said. He didn’t add a Reggie Perrinesque “I didn’t get where I am today by not tapping people’s teeth” but he might as well have done.

Over the next few days he drilled away at my tooth and the pain subsided. I felt relief – both physical and emotional – wash over me and expressed my gratitude in almost embarrassingly fulsome terms. In fact, I was so relieved and grateful that I could not contemplate returning to the old appointment-in-six-months-if-you’re-lucky, in-and-out-in-five-minutes NHS dentistry. I signed up for Denplan and have been going to this dentist ever since.

There is only one fly in the ointment. I had not been to see a dentist for several years and was not surprised when I was told, in slightly pained tones, that I needed the ministrations of the hygienist. No one likes having his teeth scraped but I was willing to go along with it because I do like clean teeth and hate the idea of being thought unhygienic. Nor was I unduly surprised when the hygienist, a pleasant and, as far as I could tell, competent, young lady, after toiling for some time over my molars informed me that I would need another session to complete the work. This was done and I thought I was ready to flash my sparkling ivories at a dull world for several months to come. I was disappointed: “See you in three months, then!” chirped the hygienist brightly. And thus was the pattern set.

After a while, I did begin to feel a little resentful. I don’t smoke, I clean my teeth regularly and I can whistle through my teeth. Why, then, do I need to visit the hygienist so often? When I put this to the dentist during one of our regular check-up sessions he said with a vague smile “Well, you’re paying the money so you might as well get the benefit”. I must admit that I felt a shadow on suspicion fall over the proceedings. After all, I assume that the dentist receives remuneration from Denplan every time I go for a check-up or a session with the hygienist so the more often I go, the more money he receives. Could my frequent invitations to sit in the chair and have my teeth scraped have anything to do with keeping up his cash flow?

Not that I am suggesting he is doing anything improper. Maybe it is a good thing to have your teeth cleaned regularly and, if so, the labourer is worthy of his hire. On the other hand, I don’t want to be inconvenienced more than is strictly necessary.

Since moving, I haven’t visited the dentist or the hygienist. I did tell them my new address but I haven’t received any letters or cards suggesting an appointment. I am still paying my Denplan subscriptions (which go up every year) but the money is wasted at the moment. Perhaps I should make an appointment – after all it’s better to discover problems as early as possible rather than wait until floored by pain – and tell them plainly that I will visit the hygienist only once every six months, not every three months.

What do you dental cognoscenti think the frequency of hygienist sessions should be?


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Of pain and dentistry

  1. Oscarandre says:

    When I ws about 14 and living in my small hometown, the local dentist went from aetheist to a full case of religious indigestion. This would not normally matter except that he developed this knack of waiting until your mouth was open and his utensils probing to suddenly say – with only a hint of menace – “And tell me, have you been saved?” While his conversion rate was high, his business gradually failed and eventually he was quietly taken away.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    What a delightful story! One quite rightly hesitates to challenge a man who is probing one’s mouth with sharp instruments.

    I have often wondered at the propensity of dentists and hygienists to ask you questions while they are working in your mouth. How are you supposed to answer? “Ngnng” doesn’t seem to fill the bill, somehow.

    Your description suggests a developing case of religious mania (personally, I classify all religious belief under the heading of Mania but that’s a theme for another day).

    Thanks for the anecdote.

  3. Ted says:

    Have your hygienist and/or dentist given you instruction in a proper plaque control program? When I was a teenager I accumulated sufficient calculus (also called tartar) as to require a three-month cleaning schedule. That’s twice as often as the standard six-month interval. The dentist told me I have alkaline saliva which reduces the likelihood of decay (I have never had a cavity) but encourages tartar buildup.

    When I got to college, the dentist at the student health service ordered me to go to a plaque control class (they educate the whole body, you see). There I learned the importance of daily flossing. Once I established that habit (I’ve missed it only once in 25 years, when hospitalization prevented it) the build-up problem diminished substantially and I was back to the normal six-month schedule.

    More recently, my dentist’s hygienist advised me to add to my ritual a little brush that cleans between teeth. Between that and specific instruction on a modified brushing technique for certain teeth that build up deposits more than others, I now seem to have licked the tartar problem and have a much easier time with the semi-annual cleanings.

    So I suggest you request a thorough review of your home dental hygiene routine and any appropriate remedial instruction.

  4. baralbion says:

    My dentist seems no longer to employ a hygienist, which is a pity as they were usually agreeable Scandinavian ladies. I can’t say my teeth have suffered for lack of their attentions but the health of my accounts may have slightly improved.

    My dentisit used to be NHS, but changed over. We stayed with him because he’s good. But I’d still like to know how they calculate their bills.

  5. Here in the U.S., standard timing for dental cleaning is every 6 months. That’s what’s covered under all the dental insurance plans I know of, and that’s how often I’ve been to the dentist since I was about 2.

    Last year my dentist tapped on one of my teeth, and located the tooth that needed a root canal. (One of my fillings had cracked, allowing the nasty germs entry to the inner workings of the tooth.) Tapping is a very effective dental diagnostic tool!

  6. Hi,

    Denplan fees to the dentist are fixed depending upon the initial assessment. So the dentist does not get more money for the more treatment done. The fact that the dentist is suggesting you visit the hygienist to get your money’s worth is very credible, honest and ethical.

    A cynical dentist who is out to maximise profit would do as little treatment as possible whilst accepting the standard monthly fee.

    simon (a dentist)

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