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$1,080 an hour

From 8:02 until 8:58 this morning, I was in the care of an excellent endodentist, having a root canal. At the end of that hour, I was presented with a bill for $1,080, a number I associate more with high definition TVs than with hourly wages.

My endodentist was excellent. She’s highly skilled and had great chair-side manner, narrating each step, and preparing me for every delightful little surprise ( “You’ll feel a dull thud as I jam this this phillips-head screwdriver into your tooth, handle first.” “The smell of your own body burning may be a little pungent.”) I am old enough to remember when root canal was the standard measure of pain, just as “the length of a football field” is the standard measure of distance and “as many books as in the Library of Congress” is the standard measure of volume, so I have no complaints about a procedure that has become merely uncomfortable with occasional sharp twinges.

But $1,080 an hour? In Boston, that’s seems to be the going rate, albeit at the high end. On the other hand, after dental insurance, it only cost me $1,080….because there’s no practical way for me to get dental insurance.

I seriously don’t understand the pricing model. The endodentist is part of my dentist’s general practice. She shares the facilities and uses the same rooms. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of complex special equipment involved, outside of some rasps, a keyhole saw, and a cash register. She’s had some specialized training, but are root canals really that much more complex than the range of procedures my general dentist can do, from reconstructing a tooth to diagnosing gum problems? Meanwhile, the endodentist is in danger of getting repetitive stress syndrome from doing the same motions — drill, scrape, fill, phone her broker — over and over.

Is it pure scarcity that drives the prices up? At those prices, why is there a scarcity? And why aren’t other dental procedures broken off and priced as exorbitantly? Or is this a residue of the days when root canals were so painful that people wanted to feel like they were getting their money’s worth? [Tags: ]

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