We always love it when The Economist makes a cutting reference to Americans’ preference for bright shiny teeth. It’s almost as if the magazine takes pride in English teeth, as a sign of lack of vanity, wise allocation of health resources, or what have you.
The mag’s latest crack got Microkhan thinking about the reasons for England’s middling dental health. And that train of thought led us to the World Health Organization, which (bless its black-helicopter heart) actually tracks the concentration of dentists by country. You can use this online app to glean the raw data, or you can download a neatly collated Word document here. (The data in the document is all from 2004, the last year for which every country reported its dental statistics.)
As we suspected, there’s a relative dearth of dentists in Great Britain; the nation actually has fewer dentists per capita Belarus, Slovakia, and a whole throng of other less prosperous European peers. But what’s most surprising about the table is that, at least at the top, there appears to be little correlation between dentist prevalence and prosperity. Sure, Norway is tops, but the runner-up is Lebanon? What’s the deal in Uruguay? And while we understand how Soviet-style medical training would lead to a surfeit of dentists in Estonia and Cuba, what’s the explanation for the Domincan Republic’s bounty of teeth fixers? The DR has more than double the number of dentists per capita as Britain, and 43 percent more than the U.S.
There’s certainly no one right answer—is there ever?—but there are obviously cultural norms at work here. Once a society’s well-off become convinced that a perfect smile is integral to beauty—perhaps via an obsession with actresses who are held up as paragons of loveliness—demand is created virtually overnight. And we suspect that the profit margins on cosmetic dentistry are pretty high, as we’ll undoubtedly find out when Microkhan Jr. enters the Braces Years.
Please note that a high dentists-per-capita figure does not necessarily mean that a nation’s poor gets to have affordable dental care. In the DR, for example, local dentists don’t necessarily seem too interested in tending to the teeth of rural children.