October 07, 2019

The Blue Light of Privilege

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

While eating lunch recently, I accidentally bit down on the fork and heard a crunch. I felt a crunch too: it was my tooth. When I went to look in the mirror I could see a tiny jagged little chunk missing from one of my front teeth. You really did have to look to see it, and probably no one would notice unless I pointed it out, but I figured I’d better do something.

I did what most of us with Internet access probably do: I Googled “what do I do if I chipped my tooth” and most sites basically said, “Call a dentist.” But at the top of the page were a seemingly endless—and cheap—lineup of products that I could buy for DIY dental repair. YouTube also hosts numerous videos on how to fix your teeth yourself.

I’m always tempted by DIY projects. It’s how we have fixed some things around the house. But some of the websites warned of infections and tooth decay, so I called my dentist’s office immediately. The next day I was in her office. She said I probably could have left it alone, but since some of the enamel came off the tooth it was more vulnerable to decay. Within a few minutes she repaired the tiny chip by covering the spot with the same resin used for fillings, then used a dental curing light (the blue light) to quickly cure and seal the resin.

My eyes were closed for the 5-10 minutes it took for the repair, only interrupted by the occasional flash of the light. I thought to myself, yes, I was upset and annoyed with myself that I chipped my tooth, but seeing that light at the dentist’s office is a privilege that not everyone can “enjoy.”

Such a simple, quick procedure can be costly, anywhere from $90-$450 according to the site Health Cost Helper. For people without dental insurance (about 23 percent of Americans), paying the balance in full might be difficult. A 2019 Federal Reserve survey found that about 40 percent of Americans do not have the cash to cover a surprise $400 expense, and would have to borrow in order to pay for it. According to a dental insurance industry report, “Americans with dental benefits are more likely to go to the dentist, take their children to the dentist, receive restorative care and experience greater overall health.”

Considering that the majority of people with dental benefits get them from their employer (about 90 percent, according to the industry report), having dental insurance probably reflects overall economic well being. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the positions most likely to come with dental insurance are those categorized as “Management, Business, and Financial” and “Professional and Related.” In all other categories, less than 50 percent of employees had access to a dental plan. In effect, having a dental plan is a marker of socio-economic status.

In 2011, I blogged about the status associated with regular dental care. Not only does having regular access to dental care reflect status, it reproduces it too.

Let’s say I couldn’t afford the visit to the dentist and let the chipped tooth slide. It would then be at greater risk of decay at a potentially higher cost to treat. If I would have tried to treat it myself I might have caused further damage (and according to some of the product reviews would have wasted my money). The longer something goes untreated, the higher likelihood of complications and higher costs.

My chip was very small and barely visible, but what if it was very visible? It was my front tooth, after all, so it would have been hard to miss if I cracked it or it broke off entirely. In my 2011 post, I talked about how broken teeth can be linked with social judgment. The disapproval of others may not be conscious, and might even prevent someone from getting a job.

That blue light of privilege at the dentist office was representative of a long list of privileges I enjoy: having a job that provides both dental care and a salary that enables me to pay for any insurance co-pays, the flexibility in my schedule to make an appointment as soon as possible (I was on summer break, so it was even easier than usual), a dentist that I see regularly with an office in my neighborhood, and transportation to the dentist’s office. After my insurance payment, I owed less than $20.

What other hidden privileges might be revealed by the misfortune of a small accident or injury?

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