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Choosing a Great Dentist

By Karen Keller

Dental dilemmas aren’t usually the stuff of existential crises—that is, until you feel a shooting pain from a tooth or gum area and think you're going to die…and then you remember that the family dentist is back with

, well, the family.

To avoid dental emergencies and to get that yearly cleaning that you agree to every three years, you need a good dentist nearby. Here’s how to find one.

Get a Decent Referral

1) Ask for referrals from coworkers, family, friends, or neighbors. Be sure to ask these questions:

  • Does the dentist run on time?
  • How many dental chairs does the dentist run at same time? Should be two or fewer.
  • Fair fees?
  • Courteous?
  • Not much soreness afterward?

2) Ask a local periodontist (they do gums, not teeth) or a local dental lab (“fixed prostheses”/ones who make crowns/bridges) owner who their personal dentist is. Ask them to give you a couple alternatives, too. Then call other periodontists/lab owners and see which dentists get the most hits. Use the yellow pages or Google to find them. No need to act sketchy—just say you're new in the area, and you’re looking to find a decent dentist.

3) Try calling a dentist and asking flat out which dental lab they use. Then call that lab and ask the owner if the dentist’s work is up to snuff.

Vet the Referred Dentist

Avoid malpractice. Call the state board of consumer affairs and ask if there are any records of actions against the dentist. Has the dentist’s license ever been revoked or suspended? Google a dentist’s name and see what comes up. If lawsuits surface, it’s probably not a good sign.

Be skeptical of the referral source. Think twice about asking an old dentist for a referral. He’ll probably just give you the number of his golf buddy.

Also check out dentist ratings at Dr. Oogle by searching a specific dentist’s name. Or plug in a zip code to see referrals on Find a Dentist.

As a last resort, check out the zip code search for dentists at the American Dentistry Association or Dentists.com.

Grill the Potential Dentist

The following questions asked to a dentist or their receptionist may help decide who is worthy of holding a drill two inches from your face:

  • Is this the dentist’s practice or does someone else own it? If they’re an owner or co-owner, chances are they’re more invested in their work and reputation.
  • How long has the dentist been practicing? Don’t sign up with a new dentist. It takes more than two years for a good dentist to really know what he's doing.

Red Flags

Dentists these days sometimes “over-treat” to make more money, just like a mechanic says you need to replace the brake pads when they’re in fine working condition.

Get a second opinion if:

  • You haven’t had a filling in years, yet the dentist insists you need several fillings. (Bear in mind that he could be right.)
  • The dentist says you need to replace your silver fillings with plastic or “white composite” ones. Silver fillings last three times as long as plastic ones. And though silver fillings contain mercury, there’s little scientific evidence that the mercury is toxic to our bodies. The FDA says so (see question #4).
  • The dentist says your gums aren’t healthy and you need “root planing”—a deep-cleaning of tartar in hard-to-reach spots. Few healthy college grads need such an intensive service.
  • The dentist say you need a crown or multiple crowns.

And beware dentists that advertise discounts or affiliation with a zillion dental plans. A good dentist doesn’t need to advertise for patients.

Weighing the Cost

Given that a cleaning can run up to $110 and a root canal over a grand, grab whatever dental benefits your employer will throw you. It will likely cost around $10 a month and come with a free yearly cleaning and some degree of coverage for cavities and the like. If you are left to your own devices, check out this article on finding the best dental coverage.

Though prices vary by region, here’s a rundown of basic costs for other dental procedures:

Wisdom Teeth
(or more apt: As Pointless As A Fifth Kidney)

So-called “wisdom teeth“ start to come in between age 18 and 23. It is extremely easy for them to become infected if they grow in wrong (which they almost always do). Most everybody has to get them cut out by an oral surgeon at some point, which ain’t cheap—around $2,400. Ask a dentist during a check-up to give you a report on your wisdom teeth. Best to get them out early. Infected wisdom teeth make recovery only that much more painful.


So you’re vain. What else is new. Unfortunately, insurance doesn’t pay for such vanity procedures as tooth-whitening or grills.

Most dentists charge about $500 for “at-home teeth bleaching.” This involves sleeping at night with a customized mold made for your teeth, filled with a sweet transparent goop that comes in syringes. The procedure’s effect usually lasts for several years. In-office bleaching is less expensive (about $400) but the shining brightness doesn’t last as long.

See here for the American Dental Association’s details about whitening methods. Or check out this explanation of how the goop does it magic on How Stuff Works.

Daily Upkeep

Brush at least twice a day with a soft-bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Floss once a day. Brush teeth for at least two minutes for one of the daily brushing sessions. Replace toothbrushes every 6-8 weeks—splayed-out bristles don’t do the job.

Avoid drinking coffee with sugar, non-diet sodas, and gum that contains sugar. For inspiration (or for visual learners), check out a diagram of a root canal. Hurts just to look at it. Incidentally, here’s a photo of a baboon getting a root canal (wait for a few secs while photo uploads).

Gargle over this: bad breath starts with that smelly gunk between teeth. Toting a toothbrush to our first job isn’t nerdy and flossing isn’t only for fifty-something hygiene freaks. Here’s a brushing/flossing how-to from the American Dental Association. To take Dental Hygiene to the next level, scrape the tongue with a regular kitchen spoon.

Mouthwash, by the way, has little or no effect on tooth/gum health. So no, it doesn’t replace brushing and flossing.



Thank you for calling out the fact that not all dentists are on the up and up when telling us what we need to get done. I have been taken for a ride by some dentists who should have been used car salesmen. If the dentist runs around in a blur and acts too busy to give you the face time you deserve definitely move on.

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