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Dear Patient: How to choose a dentist (and how not to)

Oct. 8, 2021
Picking a new dentist is a bigger deal than many patients realize. Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH, gives the lowdown on what to look for when it comes to choosing a new practice—as well as how not to.
So, it’s time to find a dentist. Maybe you’re new to an area, or perhaps it’s just time for a change. There are some dos and don’ts when it comes to finding a new dentist who will be the right fit for you. While it might seem convenient to pick the office down the street or to just go with the person your neighbor says is a “really nice person,” I encourage you to take time to choose a dental home that will provide you with the care you are seeking or even better, comprehensive care you didn’t even know was possible.  

How to choose a dentist...

Ask about their credentials

Clearly, they went to dental school but what else? Health care is a dynamic profession, and it takes a lot to stay on top of new technologies and treatments. What kind of additional training have they taken? How much continuing education do they do a year? Is the whole staff doing continued learning? You certainly want everyone in the office to be delivering the best dental care. After all, they are treating you, as well.

Look around the office—and ask about their technology

While no one needs to have all the newest gadgets and gizmos, they do need to be up-to-date. Is the office computerized or are they still using paper charts? Do you get a waft of mothballs and stale cigarette smoke when you walk in? Or does the office appear clean and orderly? Do they have the technology to show you what’s going on in your mouth? Most offices have intraoral cameras and digital x-rays. Will they take the time to explore the condition of your mouth with you?

Ask what will happen at your new-patient appointment

When you call, ask what to expect at your new-patient appointment and how long it should take. I know you might “just want your teeth cleaned,” but your oral health is way more involved than that six-month check-up you might be used to. A new-patient appointment should be between one and two hours long, which might not even include your cleaning! There should be time to talk to the dentist and staff to understand or establish your health goals. An office that sets aside the time for this is truly looking to provide comprehensive care.

Check with some area specialists

When in doubt, call some specialists. Periodontists, endodontists, and even local dental labs see dental work from all over your community. They know how offices communicate with their patients and with colleagues. If you call three or four, hopefully, you’ll hear a name more than once.

...and how not to choose a dentist

Choosing any health-care provider using the tips I mentioned can take time, and who the heck has spare time? But consider how much time you could waste with the wrong provider. Selecting someone who doesn’t have the expertise you need or someone who only treats issues when they’re true problems—as opposed to looking for the why behind all the cavities you keep getting or the receding gums that cause sensitivity—could in the long run cost you time and teeth.

Over the years I’ve learned how most people choose their dentist. While these methods might seem like a lot less hassle, they have some serious drawbacks in terms of getting the care you need.

By the list from your insurance company

While this might feel like the way to get the most from your insurance benefit and save a buck or two, picking your new dentist from a list of providers isn’t always the best move. Unfortunately, your insurance company isn’t always looking out for your best interests. And sadly, there is little to no vetting to determine the quality of work you’ll receive. So don’t think of the names on this list as a “recommendation”—it’s simply a list of offices that have agreed to the terms and pricing set by the insurance company.

By the price tag

As with many things in life, cheaper dental care is not always cheaper in the long run. Good dentistry done right the first time can save you time, money, and pain (physical and emotional). In my 25 years in the industry, I have seen some beautiful dentistry and some ugly dentistry that come with all kinds of price tags. Often the least expensive dentistry isn’t the most comprehensive; for example, you might have a rather large cavity in a tooth, and while you could put a big filling in it for less money, down the road, that tooth could crack, need a root canal, or worse yet, need to be pulled and an implant placed. So, for the price of an excellent-fitting crown the first time, you could have saved thousands of dollars.

Because someone tells you their dentist is “nice”

While rapport is undoubtedly crucial in any relationship, especially with your health-care providers, “nice” doesn’t always correlate to the quality of care you’ll receive. I have worked for plenty of nice dentists who I would not have allowed to do dentistry in my mouth. You can ask to see examples of their dentistry; look at before and after pictures and x-rays of recent crowns they have done. How does their dentistry look to you? Does it look natural or like bright white chiclets? When you look at an x-ray there shouldn’t be dark spots or ledges around crowns. Ask them to explain what you’re looking at and why they’re exceptional at what they do.

The office is right around the corner

While convenience is great, especially in today’s busy world, location doesn’t equal a perfect fit. I’m often reminded of this on my commute to work as I pass by so many dental offices and think, maybe I should just work there. Then I remember that driving a few extra miles to be proud of the care my office delivers is completely worth it.

Finding a dentist who will take the time to listen, help you establish health goals, and evaluate your current and future needs will set you up for a lifetime of good oral health. And good oral health will, in turn, benefit your overall wellness and longevity. So, choose wisely. Your life could depend on it.

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AMANDA HILL, BSDH, RDH, a practicing dental hygienist, industry educator, and key opinion leader, is passionate about the dental industry. She is a speaker, award-winning author, and host of Your Dental Top 5 podcast. A member of the advisory board for RDH magazine and OSAP’s Infection Control In Practice Editorial Review Board, Amanda strives to make topics in dentistry accurate, accessible, and fun! She can be reached at amandahillrdh.com and [email protected].