Overwhelmed by your pick of dentists? Want to make sure you know how to find a good dentist? I’m confident you will have the tools you need to choose the perfect dentist’s office by the end of this article.
We’ll talk about what you need to know before selecting a new dentist, ways to find a great dentist, the right kind of questions to ask, and even how to spot a bad dentist.
Whether you’re looking because you’re in a new city, your employer switched dental insurance plans, your dentist is retiring, or you’ve just waited a really long time for a dental visit…No need to worry. There are many simple, straightforward ways to choose a dental services provider who’s right for you and your family.
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5 Factors to Consider Before Choosing a Dentist
How can you find a good local dentist? The best approach is to take it in stages.
Start by creating a short list of offices to check, then prepare to gather information. Before you know it, you’ll begin a new relationship with a great dentist that can last for years.
So, how do you begin making that list? Let’s look at five important factors in narrowing down your list of potential new dentists.
Factor #1: Is this provider in your dental insurance network?
US readers: dental insurance, particularly for preventative dental care (such as cleanings), may be a factor in choosing a dentist. Since it doesn’t work the same way as medical health insurance, I’ve outlined a few ways to understand working with a new dental practice below based on your insurance status.
If you’re unsure of the answer to this question, your healthcare provider should have a list of participating local dentists. This can typically be found on your health insurer’s website or through your employer (HR is a good place to start). The list can serve as a starting point in the search for the perfect dentist for you and your loved ones.
No dental insurance? No problem! Check out this article on how to keep up with dental visits sans dental insurance. (It’s not as hard as you might think.)
Here are a couple of great questions I’ve been asked on the topic of finding a dentist in your insurance network:
1. What if I’m satisfied with my current dentist, but they’re not in my network?
Keep going to the dentist you love!
To understand why this is probably the best choice, it’s important to know that dental prices are not standardized like medical charges.
In-network providers sign a contract in which they agree to be paid less than they’d hope to in exchange for being included in the network. The fee isn’t massive, and it’s worth it for many providers. However, if you’re out-of-network, you can technically charge anything you want.
Here are the two options I would recommend, in this order:
- Show them your new dental insurance plan to find out if they’re willing to accept whatever the insurance company is willing to pay, then write off the rest. The downside to this is that you could eat up the cap on your dental insurance benefits for the year, which isn’t great if you have major work needed.
- Ask for an “in-network fee schedule.” That schedule is set up to normalize every dental billing code and how much they agree to make from every insurance company for those codes. Most offices are willing to accept this, and it means you’ll pay similar prices with your existing dentist as you would by switching to an in-network provider.
Either way, the dental office will still file the claim for you. I suggest setting up an agreement for one of the above options before your appointment, so you understand what you will (and won’t) be required to pay.
2. What if I want to find a functional dentist, but don’t see one in my list of participating providers?
If your insurance doesn’t cover your ideal functional dentist, you may still be able to find a dentist with similar ideals.
Even if a dentist isn’t classified as a “functional” dentist or registered with that kind of academy of dentistry, dentists should all be familiar with the way diet influences dental health as well as the mouth-body connection. By asking questions about these issues up front, you may be surprised to find a dentist who takes a more functional approach than you first expect. (I discuss this in more detail below.)
Most offices are happy to listen to concerns, answer questions and have you come in for a first-time consult and tour of their office. And if they’re not, think of it as an easy cross off your list!
Plus, refer to the bullets above—even an out-of-network dentist is able to bill your insurance and may be willing to work with you on fee schedules.
Factor #2: Should you choose a dentist who’s a member of the ADA?
Many insurance plans and other resources (websites, etc.) will recommend you only see a dentist approved or registered with the American Dental Association (ADA). But there are other options out there to find a high-quality dentist.
For instance, I am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), among others. (See my bio with the full list here.) I am not an ADA-registered dentist, though—I believe their recommendations on things such as fluoride and amalgam fillings aren’t evidence-based.
The dental professionals in the AADSM, and other similar organizations, are fully qualified Doctors of Dentistry. This association focuses much attention, research and training in the area of dental sleep medicine, including sleeping disorders and dental appliances that can be utilized to treat and reverse sleep disorders.
If you’re more comfortable with an ADA-registered dentist, that’s completely okay, too. Other organizations that a good dentist might belong to include:
- American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM)
- Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL)
- American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH)
Keep in mind: All of these academies are “pay-to-play.” A dentist selects the ones that line up best with his or her approach to dentistry, but any board-certified dentist can pay for membership. As a member of any academy of dentistry, each dentist commits to that academy’s code of conduct and treatment standards, but they aren’t actively regulated by the association or academy. They do, however, have to keep up with that organization’s continuing education.
More important than the academies they belong to, your dentist should be board-certified and have a current registration with their state’s dental board.
So, should you choose a dentist who’s a member of the ADA? Not necessarily. If you know you struggle with bruxism or sleep apnea, it might make a good idea to partner with a dentist from one of the dental sleep medicine academies. If you’re more concerned with the impact your dental problems might be having on your overall health, an AAOSH dentist may be a better fit.
Don’t live in the US? Organizations like the British Dental Association, Canadian Dental Association, and Australian Dental Association may work for your needs.
Factor #3: Are you looking for a functional dentist?
I practice and promote functional dentistry in my family dental practice. In short, this approach to dental care aims to solve problems at their root (no pun intended!) and treat the whole person, understanding that dental health is intrinsically linked to overall health.
More than just regular checkups, cleanings, fillings, crowns, and extractions, the functional dentist will educate you on how best to care for your teeth between regular visits. They will discuss the importance of diet beyond cutting out sugary drinks and candies. You may be prescribed dietary changes or less “mainstream” interventions for your dental health issues.
If that’s not what you’re looking for, that’s okay. Not everyone is interested in functional dentistry.
But if you do want to restrict your search that way, here are links to a few databases that might help to form a list of potential new dentists:
Factor #4: What type of dental work are you looking for?
This is paramount to your final decision of which dentist to choose. The answer for how to find a good dentist is tied to what you feel are your greatest dental needs.
Do you want mainly regular checkups and cleanings? The field is wide open. Look for an office where you are comfortable with the dentist and staff, in a friendly but professional environment.
Have questions about sleep habits, apnea, or teeth grinding (bruxism), etc.? The sleep medicine dentist is likely the best choice for you, so you’ll want to search specifically within sleep dentistry organizations.
Are you looking for cosmetic work or other aesthetic dental treatments? In these cases, search for specialists in cosmetic dentistry with plenty of reviews and before/after evidence for their cosmetic work.
Is your primary focus on your children’s dental care? Pediatric dentists go through the same rigorous education as any other dentist, but their offices are tailored to the young ones in our lives. Other offices that focus on family dentistry may also be a great fit, depending on the dentist.
Be sure to take your child/children with you when looking for the right office. Their first impression will be your most valuable form of discernment! (Here’s more on how to pick a great dentist specifically for your kiddo.)
Have you had a history of frequent cavities or more extensive dental procedures, such as dental surgeries or dental implants? There are many dentists who share a practice with a specialist who performs root canals and other more extensive oral procedures. They may also have a great referral program with a local endodontist.
If you’re currently in pain, you probably want a dentist who has an open appointment today or tomorrow. Not ready to pull the trigger on choosing a long-term dentist, but need relief? Try a dental school near you—because students have to learn dealing with emergency procedures, dental schools often have daily options for immediate treatment.
There are many other specialists for oral and dental needs, and unlike medical insurance, dental insurance typically doesn’t require a referral to cover these visits. Here are a few specialists you might consider seeing instead of a general dentist for your particular concerns:
- Orthodontists deal specifically with treatment of misaligned teeth.
- Periodontists specialize in dental treatment and prevention of gum-related diseases. If you have advanced gum disease, it’s a good idea to find a periodontist to partner with for treatment.
- Prosthodontists restore and/or replace broken or missing teeth.
- Endodontists perform root canals and monwhiteniitor the healing process for about two years. However, your general/family dentist will be responsible for the accompanying dental crown, so it’s a good idea to work with both dentist and endodontist for a root canal treatment.
- Oral/Maxillofacial Surgeons specialize in deep sedation oral surgery (beyond laughing gas, etc.) for complex procedures like irregular tooth extractions, cleft palate surgery, or surgery to correct the jaw.
Factor #5: Does the dentist offer a translator?
Many folks speak great conversational second languages but may not be as comfortable or familiar with medical terminology, or know how to have an informed discussion about in-depth treatment plans, etc..
If you live in an area where your first learned language is uncommon, ask the offices you research if they have a translator that speaks your primary language.
What if one is not available, but you like the dentist office for other reasons? I would recommend taking a friend or family member with you who can easily translate, especially if you feel the least bit anxious about your visit or discussions of more extensive medical information.
7 Ways to Find a Good Dentist
I’m often asked: How do I find the best dentist in my area? How do I choose a new dentist?
Once you’ve considered the factors above, you’re ready to narrow down the exact dentist who’s right for you. Here are the best ways to find a good dentist you and your family will love.
1. Ask People You Trust
Ask people you know and trust, like family, close friends, and co-workers. Do they have a happy, bright smile? Find out who keeps it that way! As soon as one of them begins to acclaim their dentist, get that name and number for the next step towards your most beautiful smile.
The best advice I can give about how to find a good dentist is this:
Who do you know who’s had extensive work done beyond standard cleanings or teeth whitening? Find the person you know that raves about a dentist after considerable work, and you’ll be on the right track.
2. Get a Referral from a Physician or Pharmacist
Ask your family doctor or your local pharmacist. It’s a safe bet that these medical professionals have vetted out the dentists they use. Doctors and pharmacists often get feedback on dentists near them, so many times, you’ll get a great idea of the best dentists in your area using this method.
3. Search the Database of Your Chosen Dental Society
Compare practices from different associations such as the AADSM, ADA, AGD, etc. Here are links to dentist searches at the major associations listed above:
4. Review Your Dental Insurance Network
Although dental insurance doesn’t necessarily need to play a part in this decision like medical insurance might, this is still one good way to find a good dentist.
Review the list of general dentists your dental plans partner with. Then, consider the factors I listed in the first section to figure out if one of them is right for you.
5. Google It (Or Use a Dental Provider Review Site)
It sounds almost too simple, but reading patient recommendations will answer many questions you have, and help add to or eliminate some offices from your list. You can even start by searching “dentist near me” and sorting by the top-rated reviews.
Sites such as CareDash or ZocDoc focus on patient reviews as well as information about services offered in dental and medical offices. These can help you get more specific reviews (and basic info) than a basic Google search may provide.
6. Narrow It Down with Questions + A Website Visit
Once you find your top picks using the above methods, go to their office website and look around.
A good dentist does not have to have a good website. However, a well-designed website, with lots of info about the practice, the staff, their specialties and strengths (and more patient reviews), can be a great indicator of a solid choice for you.
7. Double-Check Board Certification and State Licensure
Are dentists board certified? I’ve been asked this in the past. And the answer is yes.
You can read more about certification, and find out the certifications of your “short list” by visiting the American Board of Dental Specialties (ABDS). Almost every single time, you’ll find that your dentist is board certified and has a current state license.
However, there might be that one incredibly rare time that a dentist has failed to complete the necessary steps to get or renew one of these items. In these cases, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.
10 Questions to Ask Before or At Your First Appointment
There are several questions I’d recommend asking your dentist before the end of your first appointment. Depending on your specific needs, there isn’t necessarily a “wrong” answer to most of these questions.
Do you offer patients nutritional counseling?
A functional dentist, however, will probably share many other nutritional tips and simple lifestyle changes. These will give you the added benefit of stronger teeth, healthier gums, and few cavities, PLUS a healthier you from head to toe. (More on what to eat for better dental health can be found here.)
If you’re not interested in the functional route, this answer may also be important. Some people don’t want nutritional counseling from the dentist and would be put off by it.
What are your primary goals in patient care?
Functional dentistry or not, you should look for a dentist who’s hoping to do the least work possible in correcting problems. Good dental health is all about prevention. An answer that sounds like they hope to do more work sounds to me like someone who may be trying to rip you off.
What will it cost?
Others may suggest you come in for a face-to-face conversation, to go over any insurance you might have, or special prices for cash-only patients. If you have no dental insurance, this additional legwork is important to make sure you’re not being charged significantly more..
Don’t be afraid to ask about payment plans the dental office may offer, such as CareCredit, financing options, or a special credit card. Especially for work beyond cleanings, it’s a good idea to have a plan to pay off this kind of work before having it done.
What work is done in-house, versus procedures that have to be referred out?
The best answer to this question would be something like: “I handle less invasive procedures in the office. However, if my exam indicates you need more extensive dental treatments or dental surgeries, I can refer you to other specialists I’ve come to know and trust.“
Where did you receive your degree?
A: All dental schools within the US are accredited, but the if the dentist was educated in a country with different standards and requirements, you might want to do more digging. Even if the school is within the US, look them up online to see what kind of reputation they have.
How long have you been in practice?
But I would also add that finding a new dentist who is only recently out of school doesn’t mean s/he isn’t capable, or that your care would be less than great. You might be talking to a young superstar who will provide amazing dental care and oral health for your and your family members for years to come.
Benefits of an established dentist might be that s/he has plenty of experience with patients, procedures, etc. A newer dentist might be more familiar with cutting-edge dental science.
How do you approach patients with dental anxiety/fear/phobia?
Further Reading: 10 Ways to Overcome Dental Anxiety
What is your procedure for dental emergencies?
A: Find out about any dental emergency hours or how a call service is used, what is the normal response time, etc. Some offices make this much easier than others, and it might be important when establishing a patient-dentist relationship.
Do you participate in a regular course of continuing education? If so, what is it?
A: It may seem like an invasive question, but a confident dentist who keeps his knowledge base up to date and growing will gladly provide an answer.
What are your office hours? And do those office hours include emergencies, or evening/weekend times?
A: This question may help you know how much the dentist considers the needs of working families. It may not be the major factor in how to find a good dentist, but it’s definitely an important one, especially if all the adults in your family have full-time day jobs.
How to Spot a Bad Dentist
I try to think the best of people, and this includes dentists and other medical professionals. Knowing how gratifying it is to work with a patient and see them implement positive dental health habits, it’s hard to imagine any other way to practice dentistry.
I’ve had a number of opportunities to serve as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in cases where dentists are accused of malpractice. That experience, coupled with my years of service in dentistry, have given me a unique opportunity to see and compare dental offices of all kinds.
Here are several red flags you could encounter as you’re searching for the right dentist for you and your entire family:
- An unkempt office. Before you ever meet the staff or dentist, you first walk into the office. Pause to take a look around. Surfaces should be shiny and free of dust or smudges. Even older office space, with outdated carpet or furniture styles can be kept nice and tidy for a comfortable atmosphere. And look for a sparkling clean bathroom.
- Rude or impatient staff. A good dentist will hire a staff who reflects well on him or her. Considering the trepidation many patients feel about coming to the dentist, a friendly staff go a long way in setting patients at ease before they ever meet the dentist.
- A negative response from your child. When looking for a good pediatric dentist to care for children and teens, be sure the kids are present when you go to the office for a consult (once they are old enough to give you clues). Does your child respond well to the staff? Bottom line: The more at peace children are with their dentist, the more likely they are to continue good oral health into adulthood.
- Limited options for treatment. In many cases, there are multiple treatment options you can choose from to correct or resolve dental problems. So, ask questions. A bad dentist might tell you there is only one way to approach treatment, and would then seem frustrated or put out for you to suggest some other way. That’s when you know it’s time to find another dentist.
- A defensive attitude. No confident, quality dentist will have an issue with a patient asking for copies of dental records for a second opinion. If you feel any negativity or questioning about why you would want to get another dentist’s opinion, consider that another red flag, an indicator that it’s time to move on. (Side note: For a simple second opinion, try JustAnswer.com.)
- Multiple, extensive procedures out of the blue. Some dentists will unnecessarily recommend multiple procedures from fillings to root canals to extra whitening services. Be leery of these kinds of pitches. It is unlikely many people would have 12 cavities in the space of a year, or be sent to the chair for 3 root canals in the same time period. Although not impossible, I would say those numbers are high and it’s a good idea to schedule a second opinion before agreeing to anything.
- An uncomfortable feeling. Trust your gut! From the moment you enter the office, until the time you head toward the door to leave, you should feel comfortable and welcomed. If at any time this changes, it’s okay to walk away and find another provider.
Key Takeaways: How to Find a Good Dentist
Start by deciding what you want from a dentist. Whether you dread dental visits or have no particular issue with dental procedures, knowing what you’re looking for in a dentist is the springboard to finding the perfect fit for you and your family.
Do some research. Whether you use online resources to find a dentist or word of mouth referrals, form a short list of practices you think might be right for you and your family.
Ask some questions, then ask some more. The better the dentist, the more willing s/he will be to accommodate your inquiries. Whether your needs are simple and routine—checkups and cleanings—or you require more extensive work, the more you can discover up front will pay off in the end.
Lastly, don’t discount the red flags that might pop up, telling you a particular office isn’t good for you. Most of us know when we are being patronized, as well as we know when we’re being welcomed.
A good dental office will do all they can—with a clean, welcoming environment, and a friendly, well-informed staff—to win new patients over. And let’s face it: your teeth deserve the best care you can give them.
Read Next: No dental insurance? Here’s what to do.
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