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$1,000 For a Dental Crown? Maybe You Should Shop Around

 

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The Internet has brought about a sea change in how we shop for widely-available goods. No more can a local merchant get away with overpricing products that savvy shoppers can comparison price with Amazon. There are still many hold-outs, however, including dentistry. How many of us call three dentists to get prices before we schedule a crown?

This was the dilemma facing Jake Winebaum, CEO of startup website Brighter.com, when his father asked him if the quote he received for three crowns, $6,500, was a fair price. Winebaum told me that when he tried to research the question he could find no objective pricing comparison information.

The question is crucial to the health of American mouths. According to Winebaum, 50% of Americans don’t have dental insurance, including those on Medicare in all but three states. He said that $45 billion was spent out of pocket last year without any knowledge of relative pricing for procedures. Dental costs alone eat up 20% of children’s health care costs.

His new website attempts to bring commoditization to the tooth world by allowing customers to comparison shop for services. For example, looking at the dentists in my zip code, two offer to do a crown for $473, about $200 less than my own dentist charges. Unfortunately, of the 120 dentists within five miles of my zip code in Columbus, Ohio, only 3 in 120 are onboard. Spot-checking zip codes on the coasts, though, shows a much higher level of participation, so it may heavily depend on where you live.

Access to these discounts isn’t free, either, except for a one-month trial plan. With the free month plan you can access discounts of 20-30%. To realize the full discount of up to 60% you’ll have to sign up for the $79 yearly membership; think of it as a Costco for dentistry. Winebaum said that the pre-negotiated discounts bring the costs down to what the dentists usually charge insurance companies for procedures on patients that carry dental insurance, so dentists aren’t going to go broke honoring these prices. “It’s not a crazy Groupon deal,” he said.

Brighter.com offers user comments about the dentists from Yelp.com  and gathers comments on the site itself. However, you’ll find a lot of dentists that have no user comments to date. If the site takes off or more Yelpers take the time to critique their dentists, this should improve.

Most people, Winebaum said, depend on word of mouth to find a dentist, and many of those people  don’t know if they are paying a fair price or not.  For someone looking to minimize their dental costs, this site might be a good alternative.

Like similar sites, Brighter.com will succeed or fail depending on reaching a critical mass of users, because customers are the lever that will move other dentists into joining the program. The idea is sound, but can it overcome the health profession’s distaste for overt price competition? I’ve seen television ads exhorting a dentist’s gentle nature, pristine offices, even their propensity to use gas liberally. But I have yet to see one that competes on price.

Perhaps Brighter.com will gain traction in the dental world; from a consumer’s point of view, I hope so, although I (like most people, I think) am very picky about who I allow to access my mouth. I would be very reluctant to drop my dentist of 30 years, even if he isn’t the low bidder.

The one place I have seen dentistry price-driven is in the dentist-filled towns in India, just south of the U.S. border, where snowbirds flock to have budget work done. Perhaps a little more open competition through this site or another like it will bring prices down to the point that these dental tourists return to shopping locally. It will be interesting to see whether Brighter.com can sink its teeth deep enough into the market to succeed.

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