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Tips for the informed patient

By Amber Erickson Gabbey

With hundreds of dentists in the city of Boulder alone, it can be intimidating to shop for a new dentist. Whom can you trust? How do you know you will get the best care? We spoke with a few experienced dentists to get the inside scoop.

Why Do You Need a Dentist?

Most of us go to the dentist for regular cleanings, but dentists do far more than that. They check your teeth and gums for signs of infection, illness or disease. They screen your mouth for cancer. They watch for receding gums or other clues to future oral issues. They work to identify problems, like cavities, before they are big and serious. Perhaps most importantly, a good dentist looks for good oral hygiene practices and teaches you how to best care for your mouth.

“What happens at home is the most important piece to a healthy mouth,” says Gregory Herzberg, D.D.S., a general dentist at Boulder Dental Center.

How to Choose a Dentist

Both Herzberg and Terrence Nedbalski, D.D.S., an oral surgeon at Boulder Oral Surgery, say referrals from friends and family are the best way to choose a dentist. Nedbalski also recommends getting referrals from other dentists, especially when you’re looking for a specialist. Consider your age, oral hygiene, treatment needs, financial situation, insurance and personal preferences, such as gender and language, before you begin your search.

While most people want to stay in-network, choosing a dentist from the list on your insurance website is perhaps the worst way to choose. Nedbalski says this isn’t the best way to find a dentist—not necessarily because those dentists aren’t good, but because you’re deciding whom to see without knowing anything about this person. The underlying factor is that most people don’t understand how dental insurance works.

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Understanding Dental Insurance

With medical insurance, there is a ceiling, or a maximum amount you will pay out of pocket per year above premiums. With dental insurance, however, you generally have a maximum amount, often around $2,000, that will be covered; the rest is your out-of-pocket responsibility. That maximum should cover your two cleanings per year, and some or all of a minor procedure such as a filling.

When something major happens, though, like a root canal or gum surgery, your dental insurance will be maxed out pretty quickly. The common misconception is that if you stay in-network, your treatment will be completely covered, but with any major care, you will probably have some out-of-pocket expenses no matter whom you go to.

Nedbalski recommends first finding a great dentist, then talking to his or her staff about your insurance and how much a given procedure will cost. When your health is at stake, you want the best to do the job, not the cheapest.

Online Reviews

In your search for a dentist, you will undoubtedly come across reviews and websites full of comments about that provider or office. While both positive and negative reviews may have merit, don’t place all your trust in them. Some people give a bad score because they are upset about their needed procedure or they didn’t like the music. These aren’t real representations of what the provider can do. Herzberg says that since people research everything these days, they are going to read reviews, but it’s important to make the ultimate decision for yourself.

“Many people pick a dentist like they pick where they’ll go for dinner,” says Herzberg. The dentist’s reviews and website may paint a picture, but they can’t tell you if that dentist is right for you. The real test is the first appointment, so don’t be afraid to schedule cleanings with various dentists until you find someone you want to stick with.

“You need to truly trust your dentist,” Nedbalski says. “If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be going to them. Listen to your gut.”

How to Know If a Dentist Isn’t Good

There are a few red flags to watch for. If you call the office and they aren’t willing to talk, don’t seem to have time for you or won’t call you back, look elsewhere, Nedbalski says.

Herzberg thinks transparency is the biggest thing to watch for. “A good dentist takes the time to educate, answer questions and communicate with you about what’s going on,” he says. “Be wary if the dentist has the hygienist explain your treatment plan, isn’t willing to show you X-rays or seems secretive.”

Open communication is vital to good doctor-patient relationships. Your dentist should tell you everything that’s going on in your mouth, from big and serious to small and not needing treatment. Herzberg also warns about dentists who are opposed to getting a second opinion and those who push purely cosmetic fixes, like veneers, that you don’t want.

Ultimately, if you feel as if you aren’t getting a high level of care or aren’t getting enough information, find another dentist who makes you feel safe and at ease.


Why Do Dentists Give Different Information?

Have you ever been told by one dentist that your teeth are fine, only to hear from the next that you need several fillings? It’s common to get different responses from different healthcare providers, including dentists, but it leaves the patient feeling confused, frustrated and sometimes angry.

According to Dr. Gregory Herzberg, differences in diagnosis can be based on a variety of factors, including the dentist’s education, experience and general philosophy of dentistry. Some will want to fix something immediately, some prefer to keep an eye on it, and some won’t even notice it. There is also a lot of variety in imaging. New imaging devices can capture small problems earlier than in the past.

To be an informed patient, it’s important to recognize that a dentist whose treatment plan surprises you is unlikely to be negligent or lying; he or she probably sees the same thing others did, but has different ideas on what to do about it.


Amber Erickson Gabbey, M.A., is a freelance writer, natural-health enthusiast and yoga teacher. She lives in Nederland with her husband and pup.