My Experience with French Versus American Dentistry

Did you know that one of the biggest stereotypes that other nationalities have about Americans is that we have bright, white teeth and smiles? Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought that that stereotype was a bad one– I’d rather have an attractive smile than an unattractive one  In fact, although I have full healthcare and dental coverage in France, I still insist on paying for a full, all-American dental cleaning whenever I come back to the USA. Typically, a cleaning costs me $145 without insurance coverage, but for me, it is worth every single penny.

In comparison, Americans have an ongoing stereotype about the British– they have bad teeth. You can see this enhanced on multiple television shows, the most notorious being Family Guy.

Truth be told, I have a lot of British friends, I must say that, in general, I find their teeth to be superior to those of the French, due to several factors (most notably being the high number of smokers in France as well as the culture of never going to the dentist unless there’s a problem). That is not to say that ALL French and British people have bad teeth, or that ALL Americans have good teeth, but I beg you to please stay with me here as my story unravels.

Since arriving in France in 2013, I’ve gone to an array of dentists throughout various regions, and I must say that overall, I’m not impressed. Although the national insurance and my supplementary mutuelle fully cover les détartrages, or teeth cleanings, I find them to be less than satisfactory. It usually involves a simple scraping of tarter and gum examination, and with that I am on my way. France does not even supply the blue plastic floss threaders for the wires I wear on the back of my teeth to hold them together– I have to ship them from abroad.

In December 2015, I came home for Christmas and went in to get a dental cleaning. As I was still 25, I thought I was still covered under my parents’ insurance, and so when the hygienist insisted on doing x-rays (as mine were super outdated), I agreed. The dentist found four cavities– two major ones and two that were not as major. I agreed to have two of them filled in the USA (and long story short, I realized I was not covered under my parents’ insurance and therefore had to pay $450 out of pocket, so I said, “No problem, lesson learned, I’ll have the other two cavities filled in France.”)

When I came back to France in January, I scheduled an appointment with the dentist to inquire about my two cavities that my American dentist had found (I even had the numbers of the teeth to precise.) The French dentist listened to my story, took x-rays and low and behold, said, “Nope, you don’t have any cavities.”  

“You must be mistaken,” I said, “I was told I have a cavity between tooth 14 and 15 on the upper left side.”


“Well,” he said, “You have maybe a little something, but it’s not enough to really treat. We don’t really do preventative care here in France.”

I was a bit flabbergasted, and annoyed and also a little bit angry. But who am I to argue with a professional?

I kind of put it behind me for awhile, and then when August 2016 rolled around, I went to a different dentist to get another détartrages (it had been 8 months since my last one in December.) I told the dentist the story about the previous French dentist I saw as well as my American dentist, and asked, “Can you please take x-rays to double check?” And when he took the x-rays, he found zero cavities.

Again, something didn’t sit right with me.

Are American dentists just in it for the money, and will try to get you and rip you off at every chance they get?

Or, are French dentists just incompetent, who are suffering from socialized medicine-based salaries, and will wait until the cavity becomes a root canal (and therefore more expensive) before treating a patient? 

I came back to America a few days ago, and I scheduled a teeth cleaning at my dentist. I explained to him what happened with the two French dentists, and how I never got those two cavities filled. My American dentist proceeded to pull out last year’s x-rays and sternly told me, “No, you do have a cavity, it needs to be treated, and if it hasn’t been treated in over a year, it is now a much bigger problem than it was this time last year.” He then proceeded to bash socialized medicine, make comments about European people’s teeth compared to ours, amongst other things. Needless to say, I’ve now scheduled another appointment to get these cavities filled and pay $432 out of pocket, because I’m not convinced I can get them done in France, after I’ve tried twice.

I am from a very conservative area of Wisconsin, and socialized medicine is not a very highly regarded thing in the United States. For me living in France, the healthcare is affordable and it works, but then again, I am in general a healthy person. On the other hand, French dental care has now failed to meet my needs on more than one occasion; I have had two dentists refuse to treat or even acknowledge these cavities, and I am now paying out of pocket for what should normally be a relatively inexpensive procedure, because my teeth and their health are important to me.

Expats, have you ever come across this problem or this dilemma? Is socialized medicine really all it’s cracked up to be? Do we always get the treatment we need, or are teeth just highly disregarded across the pond? What would you do in my situation? Leave a comment below, and keep it civil!




38 thoughts on “My Experience with French Versus American Dentistry

  1. There are good and bad dentists everywhere. European dentistry is also preventive. I live in Bulgaria and I see my dentist every 6 months for teeth cleaning and general check up. Lots of explanation as to what goes on with my teeth is given and if the tooth is ok I am not forced to have work on it done. I also pay out of pocket so the dentist has no incentives to skip a procedure other than decency.

  2. I have not been to a dentist since 1995 except a couple of years ago to have a filling for a chipped tooth, and another time to have a chipped front tooth ground even. That is the only filling I have. At one time I had impacted wisdom teeth that got infected that were removed. And another time my gums bled and I saw a dentist who cleaned my teeth and introduced me to flossing.

    I clean my teeth once a day and floss .. that is it.

    But I dont eat sugar, fruit juice or even much fruit. I am vegetarian, 65, and have all my own teeth with no issues so far. If I do have some twinge, I check my diet, and in a week all is well. And I use a toothpowder I made up including bentonite clay if I feel the teeth need a bit of strengthening. I do jump on any issues I think I may be having with gums.

    I have friends in the UK who have told me about a number of unnecessary fillings they had as children because dentists were paid by the filling .. this is with socialised medicine too.

    For this reason, I prefer the French system’s approach. Leave alone and manage by diet and cleaning. I think it works well.

    My husband has teeth that require a lot of maintenance, and many are for replacement fillings he had when young. He used to drink a lot of fizzy stuff.

      1. Hi Dana,
        I read your story. It’s very interesting. I am a U.S. dentist. I did my four years of high school in Paris about thirty some years ago.
        In the U.S. we are all about prevention. So when we see small lesions in between teeth on a radiograph we give our recommendation to restore the cavities. Because a cavity is like cancer. It doesn’t go away on its own, it will just get larger and worse. In the U.S. and Canada we see our dentist every six months. In almost every other country people only see their dentist when they are in pain. Cavities don’t hurt. Once a cavity hurts you can no longer have it filled because it has reached the pulp(the nerve of the tooth) and now you need a root canal. To prevent a root canal and infection we recommend restoring cavities before the nerve is involved. This is to help patients and prevent further complications and to protect ourselves from legal complications brought against us by patients. In other countries they don’t practice defensivly or preventably like we do in the U.S.

    1. Not our experience. Anthem’s gatekeepers are a ticket to the grave . my wife’s experience in Roussillion was cancer watch is for 10 years of specialized care with full body CT scans. That rather than Anthem’s deny referrals until it’s almost too late and the treatment far more invasive. As some sage said of US insurers. Don’t get sick and if you do die fast

  3. I live in France but I shall never, ever go to a French dentist again. I now go to Spain. They seem to know what they’re doing and are into preventative dentistry, unlike the French.

  4. I would have gone to one more different American dentist as a fourth opinion (but second American opinion ) to reassure myself that the first dentist isn’t scamming me . Then if they agreed there were the beginnings of cavities in the teeth then I would never see a French dentist again because obviously they like to wait then to fill cavities until the cavities progress more . Which is there cultural choice I guess and due to socialized medicine may be drilled into their heads that a tiny spot does not require a filling yet . In fact my American dentist is excellent and has filled many cavities of mine but some years he has said “well I do see one tiny thing on this x-Ray but we don’t need to fill it , I think we can just keep an eye on that since you come in every few months .” Etc…. so I can sort of see how it COULD be possible none of the dentists are quacks or completely incorrect . You know ?

  5. I’m an American dentist and met all kind of dentists during my practice in a few states and places in the US. Based on my experience, I’m confident that the French dentist were right. You, most probably, did not have cavities, which would require fillings. Again, there is no way to diagnose your dental condition of that time today, since I haven’t clinically and radiographically evaluated you; however, I suspect that you had incipient decay, which only needed a fluoride treatment and changing diet, hygiene habits.

  6. I had similar experiences just moving within the US. I went to an “affordable” dentist while growing up and then during home leave visits to my parents. When I moved to Florida I went to a new dentist who was using updated, digital x-ray technology and a special laser caries detector who discovered that I had multiple old fillings that needed to be replaced. The new dentist had more sophisticated diagnostic tools that let him “see” problems before they became obvious to older, simpler ways.
    I never lived in Europe, but Chinese dentists in the 90s were only just emphasizing prevention of cavities instead of treating problems (found an American dentist in HongKong) and in Japan they had every type of diagnostic tool ever imagined but they cost a fortune and seemed to focus on their technology instead of patient care. Every place a new experience!

  7. very amazing !
    az a dentist and experience of legal expert in dentistry i had some similar adventure:
    diagnosis of cavities depends on the concept of cariology and treatment,the french dentist may be more conservative than american dentist.maybe both of them are right.
    please notice: dental treatment is a philosophy , please ask about the philosophy of dentist then choose your dentist.

      1. Your philosophy seems to be that rich people deserve Hollywood smiles and poor people deserve missing teeth.

  8. I’m all for socialized medicine but I have heard similar reports about French dentists – my mother always insisted I go to the dentist in the US so I actually have never been to the French dentist. I hate Hugo’s French dentist, though – he had a major dental thing done, and at a followup appointment, she noticed that there might be some other minor problems, but refused to look at them – she said he would have to make another appointment (by the way, this was in his hometown, not in Lyon, so he had to take time off of work to go!) And then she said she would send the papers for his mutuelle reimbursement and didn’t do it, so almost no reimbursement for something that cost over 1000 euros.

    It’s definitely true that annual dentist checkups are not part of the culture! Even the most responsible people I know are puzzled at the idea. People used to tell me that they could tell I was American because of my teeth (which are actually not super white and a little crooked because I didn’t wear my retainer). I find it so weird that the US and France consistently had completely different takes on your teeth – I don’t know what to believe anymore! That sounds incredibly frustrating. If you ever get to the bottom of the discrepancy please update!

    Apparently there is a dentist in Paris who does teeth cleanings American style (my friend who went was elated that he managed to make her gums bleed). Pretty sure he’s a private dentist though (still not totally sure how it all works). We actually have friends in Lyon who just went through dental school, curious what they would say about France’s take on cavities.

    1. I was doing some research online and I found a couple of bloggers whom see American dentists in Paris! I think I am going to take the plunge and do the same, as I’m only an hour away. It’s so worth it for me and it’s one of those cultural phenomenons I’ll never be able to shake (and I’m okay with that!) I also plan to start looking into the private sector for dentistry, I’m lucky that I’m a healthy person in general, but I’m stuck paying $500 out of pocket this time round 😦

      1. Ouch, it’s never fun to spend that much, but like you said, it’s either now for preventative care or later for more serious problems, so better to get it done the way you feel is best the first time around. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I’m always glad to have an excuse to go to Paris 🙂

  9. Oh the stories I could tell! After 25 years in France, and extensive experience with dentists on both sides of the Atlantic, I can confirm that dental care in this country is not at all at the level of North America. It is the poor relation of socialized medicine, however, and not an indicator of the quality of healthcare in general. When I had a major ear surgery a few years ago, I ended up choosing a surgeon in Paris and received the absolute best care available. No bells and whistles, hospital-wise, and in communications terms, it could have been better. But the surgeon knew his stuff and it did not cost me a penny. Now we live near the Swiss border and I go to Geneva to see the dental hygienist twice year at my own cost – they have a similar system and quality of dentistry to what we have in Canada. Bottom line: French dentists: avoid. For everything else, do your homework and enjoy the ride!

  10. I’m a big fan of socialized medicine but when I had to have a risky surgery, I was so relieved to be in the US with health insurance. Not only were there a bunch of specialists in my area (with credentials and reviews online) but even the internet support groups in English were invaluable with their checklists of questions to ask, advice about the procedure, etc. Unfortunately I wouldn’t have had access to all of that information in France, and in terms of pure numbers, there just aren’t as many highly specialized practitioners in France. So while I think socialized medicine works for most people most of the time — there are times the American system definitely has an advantage.

  11. You know my thoughts. 🙂 I’ve seen two dentists in France just for a cleaning and like you felt it wasn’t as thorough as cleanings in the US. When my dentist was sick, his replacement was a young guy just out of dental school. He told me that preventative care isn’t a huge focus in dental school, not to the extent that it is in the USA. And yes, money plays into it. A simple cleaning is reimbursed and financially a waste of time for a French dentist. Root canals and crowns are more expensive and the money goes in their pocket.
    My dentist in the US told me that if you have a root canal or wait to go to the dentist until you have pain, that it’s too late. Preventative care can help us to avoid major work in many, many cases. I have no problem getting my cleanings in the US. Small price to pay. We only get one set of teeth.

  12. I hate seeing a dentist, here it cost a bloody lot to see a dentist if you do not have private health cover which I don’t so I don’t bother seeing a dentist very often that said we are into preventive care here but what they (dentists) do that piss me off is they will put in a temporary filling what is the point of that

  13. Wow this is surprising. Then again, even in the US I’m embarrassingly bad about keeping up with my dental care. I went right before I came back to France and told the dentist I was sure I had last come in about a year ago….but the last information they had was from 2012…!! I haven’t yet taken advantage of French socialized medicine, so I can’t fully respond to your predicament, but I will certainly be more cautious when/if I do!

  14. I think here in Europe, it varies a lot from dentist to dentist – my dentist in the UK is quite into preventative care, so will fill tiny cavities to stop them from becoming big ones, but then it’s a private dentist not an NHS one. Perhaps that could go some way to explaining it – if you go private then they’ll be more about preventative treatment and identifying problems before they become more expensive to fix, but if it’s state-run then they’d rather do a quick job and send you on their way… I hope this sort of experience doesn’t become the norm for you, as it must have been a very frustrating experience.

    1. I think you’re onto something with the private sector. Perhaps it’s time I start paying more out of pocket for non-conventionné, or I make my way to Belgium for the dentist…

  15. This story reminds me how I have not seen the dentist since… umm… 2013 maybe?!? Yes I know it’s bad. I will schedule an appointment after the New Year, no more putting it off! But did you see a different American dentist the second time you went back and explained how the French dentists didn’t see any cavities on the X-rays? I would have asked for a second American dentist’s opinion.

  16. Hey Dana. I’ve never had a cavity in France—of course, how can I be sure now that I’ve read your story?? But then I never had a cavity in my adult teeth in the States either. I had my teeth sealed when I was 12 and that seems to have really helped with keeping them clean.

    I wonder if the difference in dental care is more cultural than system-related. Because in general, I have been so well treated by the medical system in France throughout all of my minor but expensive health problems. Having a baby was 10 times more doable financially than in the States. So I think Americans are a little obsessed with dental care (surely two intensive cleanings a year is not quite necessary…) but I also think the preventative side of our dental care is a value that France could do well to adopt.

    1. Same! I know I’m financially better off in France when it comes to healthcare, but my cleanings have always been less than satisfactory. This cavity things is out of control. The US definitely does more preventative care… and yes we are obsessed with dental care.. although to be frank, I see the difference. This cavity thing is so weird though, because I went to different dentists in France, and had multiple dentists examine the x-ray in the US… so, so odd. and infuriating!

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