The streets were quiet as we made our way through the business district late one night in the dead of the Norwegian winter. Sticking to the shadows, we found the professional building at the address scrawled on a piece of notebook paper.
As promised, we found the unlit rear entrance unlocked. We looked around to make sure nobody was observing the alley we were in, and then we quickly slipped inside, locking the door behind us. We quietly walked down the darkened corridor and found the office we were looking for. We knocked using the sequence we had been given. A voice quietly said to come in quickly.
On the other side of the door we found ourselves in the darkened waiting room of a dental office. A tense faced dentist quietly led us through the dark to a small treatment room that had no exterior windows. Once inside, he switched on the lights. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I could lose my job for this.”
Even though I had seen most of the office only in half light, it was apparent that it was neat, orderly, and well cared for. But everything about the office, from the appointments and furnishings to the equipment and supplies was like stepping into a U.S. dental office twenty years earlier. I marveled about this, because Norway has one of the highest living standards in the world. When I made some comment about the office’s retro appearance, the dentist looked at me strangely. “This office is among the most modern in the country,” he proclaimed.
The dentist wasted no time seating my companion in the treatment chair. He then found that he needed to return to the cabinet for some supplies. “I’m sorry,” he said, “my assistant usually handles this part, but I can’t have her here because she can’t know that you have ever been here.”
When the dentist opened the cabinet, he opened a panel to a seemingly hidden compartment, from which he drew out several items. “I can’t use the regular supplies,” he said, “because the ministry tightly controls those. I have these supplies because we secretly store anything that is left over after a procedure, just in case we need it later.”
When the dentist prepared to inject an anesthetic, my companion asked why he didn’t use gas instead. Was the cavity too deep for that? No, the dentist replied. It was just that the gas was metered so that it couldn’t be misused. Regulators could easily discover any gas usage that had not been approved.
The dentist had a pleasant treatment manner and seemed quite proficient. He drilled and filled the cavity and then prepared to send us on our way. He instructed us to let ourselves out, making sure that no cleaning people were in the outer corridor and making sure that no one saw us leaving the building.
“I don’t quite understand all the stealth,” my companion said. “Can’t you treat anyone you want to treat?” “In Norway,” replied the dentist, “all of the means to do dental and medical treatment are either owned or controlled by the state. There are strict rules about how anything can be used. The rules are all well intended, but sometimes they have unfortunate consequences.”
When my companion asked what he meant, the dentist said, “Sometimes I can’t do what I know is best for the patient. The ministry, for example, will let me do only a certain number of certain procedures each month. Once I’ve hit that limit, if a patient needs that treatment I have to tell them no, even if they’re in great pain. That’s why I hoard as many supplies as I can, so that I can treat people in the last week of the month if they need it. Everyone knows that all dentists do this, but no one can talk about it. If you get caught, you’ll lose your license. Treating foreigners like you out of charity is strictly forbidden. If anyone finds out about this visit, I will lose my license.”
“This all seems so wrong,” said my companion. “Well,” replied the dentist, “it’s one of the prices you pay for having socialized medicine. You can visit a doctor anytime you want, but you can’t necessarily get adequate treatment, even if the doctor wishes he could provide it.”
When my companion asked how much he owed the dentist, he replied, “Nothing. I can’t take any money for performing charity. In fact, I wouldn’t even know how much to charge you for it. We don’t get paid by procedure like dentists in America do; we get paid a salary. I have no idea how much it costs to do a procedure. Only the ministry knows that kind of thing.”
“Are you leaving with us?” asked my companion. “Are you crazy?!” replied the dentist. “I will wait here for at least 20 minutes after you are gone before I dare to leave. If anyone were to see us leave together, I’d be finished.”
As we made our covert escape into the dark cold night, I couldn’t help but be struck by how strange the whole experience had been. I remarked to my companion, “At least it will never be like this back home in America.” Given the current push for socialized medicine, I may have spoken too soon.