NOTE: My original intention was to continue with the The Lineage of a Cigarette Butt and risk-taking. But having just returned from a follow up dental appointment at a local Red Cross hospital, I was inspired to write this after paying a paltry sum of 180 yen. That is about a buck fifty in USD. I will eventually get to “The Lineage …” post another time.
WARNING: This is a blog post trumpeting the socialized dental care of Japan. For those afraid of socialism read no further. You’ve been warned.
Let me begin at the beginning. At the age of three the first of many teeth began rearing their pearly whites… sorry not that beginning. Let’s take it from Japan.
Much like my medical doctor in Japan I have been going the same dentist for more than fifteen years. Seeing the same person twice a year for that long, needless to say we get to know one another quite well. And more importantly he knows my teeth inside and out. Having done countless cleanings, aging silver filling extraction/replacements and an occasional “Mushiba,” cavity fixing, I can honestly say that no matter what I have never had an uncomfortable experience. Nor have I paid more than the equivalent of $50.
Recently, I went to my dentist for the bi-annual cleaning. He had from a previous cleaning detected that one tooth seemed to be presenting problems causing swollen gums and redness around the area. After taking an x-ray he asked that I return the following week. Providing me with an explanation, I needed further examination by more sophisticated lab equipment. He recommended that I go to the Red Cross Hospital to further diagnose what he saw in the x-ray. Leaving that day with a recommendation letter, protocol for going to a larger hospital, I paid my equivalent of $15 and proceeded to make an appointment with the Red Cross hospital dentist for two weeks later.
I had never been to such a large hospital and feared that it would take hours waiting to see the dentist and eventually paying a break-the-bank bill. Upon arrival and trying to get my bearings I noticed there were so many people inundating every department. After being steered in the right direction by a very friendly staff, I handed the receptionist my health insurance card and sat down. Within ten minutes I was called in.
No need to go into detail of yet another great experience. In short, I was directed to get more x-rays and return. I did and after another ten minutes found myself sitting in the dentist office as he explained with the x-ray images already up in his computer screen his diagnosis. The long and short of it, I needed to schedule another appointment for a root extraction to determine whether this area of my mouth has early signs of cancer. While the cancer word may seem worrying, I was more worried about getting gouged for the cost and thinking to myself, “Okay, here we go, Having gotten by without paying over $50 for fifteen plus years my time has come to pay the pauper.”
The day of the extraction I arrived fifteen minutes early for the 1:30 appointment, checked in and took a seat in the waiting area. Having never experienced a root extraction I was a bit nervous and fiddled with my wallet making sure I had my credit card at the ready to cover the exorbitant costs of extracting a root. 1:30 on the dot I was called in. Bows all around from the staff and “yoroshikus,” the polite way of saying please be kind to me, customary for any situation, especially one in which sharp objects inside a mouth are involved. Who knows this dentist could be into nitrous oxide and gone off the deep end. Actually, I eyed this guy up and down on the previous visit and deemed him sane.
Novocain shots around the extraction area, a question from the dentist about pain or no pain, “No pain,” I say and out comes the drill. Drill, tug, drill, tug, still no anticipatory pain. Then a final tug from what I can only surmise to be pliers and the dentist says, “Oshimai ni narimashita,” meaning we are all done. While I understood the meaning, I still had to confirm I heard it right because the whole procedure was over in fifteen minutes. He said, “Hai,” meaning yes. He ended up removing two roots and showed me while the assistant removed my bib. I was surprised he removed two without asking for permission. Worse yet, I am sure it will now cost me an arm and a leg. I didn’t question him and simply went with the flow knowing I had my credit card at the ready. Besides, “I could always take on additional work teaching business English privately to businessmen to cover the costs if need be,” I thought to myself.
Shuffled out to a waiting room I was told to wait fifteen minutes to recover and for the penicillin and painkillers prescription. With prescription and sheet of paper with my information and bar code used for payment at the checkout kiosk much like an ATM in hand I headed to the first floor to pay up. With nobody in line I went right up to the ATM-like payment kiosk. The process is simple, place the bar code where the red light shines and your information and total cost comes up. You then determine your payment, credit or cash and pay. “Here we go,” I tell myself taking a deep breath. Bar code just under the light I slide it forward causing the screens to light up with an automated AI woman speaking directions in Japanese. I wait with bated breath for the total. While waiting for my information to show up I get a flash of the injury I had a few years earlier in the US when I broke my collarbone from a mountain bike accident. Not having US or travelers insurance this cost me $5k out of pocket. It was a painful lesson to always have some form of health insurance no matter where you go.
Beep, beep beep, my name comes up. I scan the screen for the total cost which would be in YEN. There it is … what!? Really!? Come on!!! You are kidding me!!! Six thousand five hundred YEN. Now for those who have never been to Japan simply drop two zeros to get a rough USD equivalent. The total cost for two root removals and drugs cost a whopping total of $65––The cost for two at a reasonably nice restaurant.
Blown away I put my credit card away and paid in cash. With a wad of gauze still in my mouth soaking up any remaining blood I wanted to go up to the nearest health care worker and thank them for such a civilized and reasonably priced experience. I thought the better of it knowing what I might sound like to them and knowing they have a psyche ward on the 6th floor.
During the twenty-minute bike ride home I was beaming with joy from the experience and knowing that as long as I continue to live in Japan I don’t have to live with stress about whether I can afford dental care, or health care for that matter.