The chic, downtown dental clinic in Vancouver’s Yaletown neighbourhood tempts new patients with a sexy, sidewalk ad: a close-up of a woman’s mouth, glossy red lips parted as she sucks on a black cherry. Inside, in the elegant, steel-and-glass reception area, a giant, flat-screen TV broadcasts a gruesome loop: an endless barrage of mangled, rotting, yellow teeth. Fear not. Nearby are advertisements for procedures to cure your train-wreck smile, including Lumineers, Zoom! Whitening, and Botox—whose virtues the stunning, 24-year-old dental hygienist rattles off as the exam begins. She’s used it to treat her wrinkles and frown lines, she says. She loves it.
In the past 20 years, even as fluoridated water, toothpastes, sealants and protective resins have greatly cut down on cavities and decay, dentists have somehow flourished. In Canada, dentists now earn an average of $140,000 a year, roughly the same as doctors—up from $125,000 a decade ago. In the U.S., they’re quickly outpacing doctors. In 2004, U.S. dentists earned an average of $185,000, compared with primary care physicians, who earn between $140,000 and $160,000. Factor in the number of hours worked, and the disparity grows even wider. After a bit of creativity, marketing, and a few aesthetic touches, some of today’s clinics look more like spas, offering paraffin-wax hand treatments, massage chairs and Zen lighting—dentistry has reinvented itself.