Recession doesn’t bite at UI College of Dentistry

BY LINI GE | MARCH 2, 2009 7:30 AM

Brenda Myers, 69, hasn’t had her teeth cleaned for nearly 20 years, weathering a broken tooth and some cavities all because she doesn’t have health insurance.

Myers was among roughly 100 people who signed up to potentially be patients for senior students at the UI College of Dentistry. Approximately 50 of those patients will receive dental treatment for free from the students, who are required to complete certain procedures as part of their board exams.

“I was excited because my mom hasn’t had that window of opportunity to be seen for a long time,” said Myers’ daughter Brandie Gallardo.

But many patients similar to Myers may never have this rare opportunity to enjoy free dental care. And when they need the services, they have to pay — keeping dentistry strong even during tough economic times.

Dental profit margins across the nation rose nearly 1.5 percent in 2008 over the previous year, according to Time. The dental-school clinics saw a 4 percent increase in patient visits from July 1, 2008 to Feb. 1, compared with the same period a year ago, said Michael Kanellis, the dental school’s associate dean for patient care.

Kanellis attributed the increase partially to the student clinics.

“The big incentive for most patients seeking care in our student clinics is the cost,” he said.
The cost is what prompted Kelly Massner to drive one and a half hours to send her daughter, 16-year-old Paige Pennington, to the college for wisdom-teeth surgery.

Living in Mediapolis, Massner’s family used to visit a private dental office in Burlington. But when Massner found out Pennington’s surgery will only cost around $1,400 at a student clinic, nearly half the price at the private business, she quickly made her decision.

“Normally, I wouldn’t be worried about the out-of-pocket just for convenience,” Massner said. “But you know what, times are tough. I’m just going to take off work and come here.”

But Coralville dentist Greg Gilbaugh said convenience often keeps his patients coming back to his clinic. Because his office flooded last summer, Gilbaugh moved his business to the dental school, farther away from most of his clients. As a result, he sees around 40 people daily instead of the normal 50 to 60, he said, attributing the decline to his location rather than the economy.

“I don’t think the recession has really affected the industry at this time. In our area, we are a little more insulated and protected,” Gilbaugh said.

Several adjunct professors in the dental school — who run their own private practices in Amana, Washington, Davenport, and Wayland — agreed with Gilbaugh.

James Harris said although he had heard of patients skipping cleanings and checkups in other parts of the country, it’s not the case in Iowa.

“Maybe we communicate better with our patients so they understand that coming regularly helps them avoid those major problems and save them money in the long run,” said Harris, who runs a clinic in Washington.

It is still too early to tell how the recession will impact dentistry in Iowa and the major effect will probably be felt in the upcoming year, Kanellis said.

But Gilbaugh said he’s confident about the future of the business.

“I think we are going to be pretty stable. I’m not really concerned,” Gilbaugh said. “There will always be people who have needs, and we are going to be available to serve them.”

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