There may be nothing more cliché than saying that a trip to the dentist is rather unpleasant. It may have something to do with how intrusive it feels to have two strangers stick their fingers and tools into your mouth while they chat with each other about what they’re having for lunch that afternoon. And even before any work is done, you may be shown an x-ray of your teeth, after which the dentist will say that you have urgent cavities that must be taken care of immediately.
So not only are you uncomfortable, but you also have to make a decision: do you get the work done? How much will it cost? What might the long-term consequences be?
A trip to the dentist can get expensive pretty quickly. Three years ago, I visited a dentist who said I had six cavities that needed to be filled or else I would need to have several root canals done. However, the cost of having six cavities filled was too great to take on at the time, so I had two filled and planned on having the others done later. But then instead of being diligent about it, I went three years without visiting a dentist again.
So imagine my surprise when a recent dental appointment revealed that all of my teeth were in great shape — except for the two with fillings. My new dentist told me I could need a root canal for the teeth my previous dentist had drilled, new fillings, and a crown for one of the teeth, which would have cost me thousands of dollars. Luckily, in the end, only a new filling was necessary.
My experience highlights the most critical question of all regarding a consumer’s experience with a dentist: does the procedure actually need to be done?
Consumers at a Disadvantage
There are many unknowns a patient deals with when visiting a dentist. They rely on their doctors to diagnose and treat problems because they don’t have the knowledge or training to take care of them on their own. In addition, patients typically don’t know what the price of a procedure is until the end of a visit, and costs can vary dramatically from dentist to dentist. These unknowns put a consumer in a situation where they may be paying for services they don’t need, said Monica Russo, the manager of investigations and media relations for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of greater Houston and South Texas.
“We’ve routinely seen complaints at BBBs across the nation,” Russo said — more than 12,000 complaints, in fact. “One of the biggest problems for consumers is that they have to put their trust completely in their dentist.”
The most common complaints are that dental work was performed poorly, inflated billing, charges for services that weren’t done, and unnecessary treatments. Russo herself fell victim to dishonest dental work.
“I encountered this years ago when I went to a dental group and they said I had seven cavities, which didn’t seem right because I had no pain,” Russo explained. “I went and got a second opinion because [the initial dental assessment] didn’t seem right to all of a sudden have seven cavities. And no surprise, I didn’t have any.”
During her first visit, Russo said she was pressured to make a quick decision and she was quickly referred to the dental group’s finance office, which is a common tactic for less-than-reputable dentists.
“They make it sound like this is something you have to get done now and then they try to rush you into it,” she explained. “I can see how some people would just go ahead and agree to have the procedures done because it’s hard for anyone to say no. And when you’re in a situation like that, you’ve put all your trust in your dentist.”
Along with the pushy sales tactics, consumers should pay close attention to the kind of rapport the office’s staff has with patients. If staffers are friendly and answer patients’ questions, then they’re more likely to be reputable. However, consumers should be wary of dentists who hesitate to hand over x-rays, even if you it means sending them over to another dentists so the patient can get a second opinion.
But although the consumer is at a disadvantage at the dentist’s office, there are some steps they can take to ensure they make an appointment with a reputable professional.
Research Is Key
The easiest way to see if a dentist is trustworthy is to ask friends and family members if they have a dentist they’ve been going to for a long time. If so, then the dentist is probably fine to work with. If that doesn’t work, there are other ways to determine a dentist’s reputation. For example, the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners provides an online resource that enables people to find out if a dentist has any record of disciplinary action. Russo said that when the BBB considers accrediting a dentist, they look up his or her record on the TSBDE’s website.
“What we look for is if there’s been any past disciplinary action. A really bad dentist usually has some record of disciplinary actions. Not all [of them do], but it’s a good place to start and to weed out some of the bad ones,” she explained.
The BBB’s website is also a good resource. It features a searchable database that includes complaints made to the BBB and how the business is handling them. However, dental offices that are not accredited by the BBB have no obligation to respond to any complaints. The ones that are accredited, however, have plenty of motivation to respond because they want to maintain their status as a reputable business with the BBB.
Consumers can also look at Google or Yelp’s customer reviews to get an idea of how reputable a dentist’s office is. But even that isn’t the most reliable source of information because a business can inflate its own rating by leaving reviews for itself, or a competitor can leave negative reviews that artificially skew the score.
- Get a Second Opinion - If you’re having major work done, then you should consider getting a second opinion, regardless of how long you’ve been seeing your dentist.
- Find a Good Dentist Before You Need One - Don’t wait until you’ve got a problem to find a dentist. “If you wait until you’ve got a problem, then you put yourself in a situation [where] you can be taken advantage of,” Russo explained.
- Act Like a Consumer - There’s nothing keeping you from doing your homework. Along with the research, you should be able to visit a dentist’s office before your appointment and ask for references from current patients.
- Ask About Alternate Treatments - A dentist should be open to discussing alternate treatments, if they’re available, as well as the risks and benefits of undergoing a certain procedure. The dentist’s office should also be upfront about the cost of the procedure.
- Take Your Time - You should never feel pressured into undergoing a certain procedure. Unless it’s an emergency, you should take the time to consider the costs, risks, and benefits of having work done. Even having a cavity filled could have significant long-term consequences, so the choice is not one that should be taken lightly.