For years you’ve visited the same dental office for your regular cleanings and the occasional cavity. You’ve had few complaints about your care — certainly none big enough to merit changing dentists. But recently you’ve moved, or your dentist has retired, or your insurance plan has changed, and you’re obliged to make a switch. You know that finding a good dental team is important, so how do you begin the search? What do you look for in a dentist and dental hygienist?
Obviously, the practitioners’ skills and the safety precautions and technology employed in the office are important criteria. Then there are practical considerations, such as the proximity of the office to your home or workplace, the office hours, accepted insurance plans, fees, payment policy, and ability to accommodate emergencies. A comfortable office environment also matters, particularly if you have any anxiety about dental work. You want a dental team with a good “chairside manner,” one that is willing to listen to your concerns, answer your questions, and explain what they’re doing and why.
Few of these details can be found by flipping through listings for dentists in the phone book. Finding the right dental-care provider will take some time and research, and it is best done under nonemergency conditions. Start your search well before you’re due for a checkup. Often, people look to neighbors, relatives, or other health-care providers for recommendations or referrals. Personal recommendations are a good starting point for finding out about a dentist’s general approach, the demeanor of the office staff, and the reputation of the practice in the community. Once you have some names, you can do your own research to form an opinion.
A dentist’s technical skills are of utmost importance, but evaluating these skills is not always easy for someone who is not a dental professional. One sign of professional commitment, however, is membership in a professional dental organization such as the American Dental Association (ADA) or a state dental association. The dentist’s receptionist should be able to tell you over the telephone if the dentist maintains such a membership.
When you call a dentist’s office, it’s perfectly all right to ask the receptionist his or her name and how long he or she has worked with the dentist. Does the receptionist sound professional and courteous? Does he or she seem proud of and knowledgeable about the practice? If the dentist treats his staff well and his dentistry is of high caliber, employees tend to brag a little, which is usually a good sign. Any reluctance on the part of the staff to answer your questions, on the other hand, is a worrisome sign.
When you visit an office, take a look around. Dentists who are proud of their work may display “before and after” photos in a photo album or on the walls in the reception area. You can sometimes tell if the dentist’s work is not just cosmetically admirable but also technically sound by looking at the gums in the “after” photos. Healthy gums are pale pink, not bright red. A conscientious dentist will not do cosmetic work if a person’s gums are in poor condition. If the gums look unhealthy in the “after” photo, it should raise a red flag in your mind.
The comprehensive oral exam
Your first appointment with a new dentist should be a comprehensive oral exam, an in-depth screening that enables the dentist to complete your dental records and develop a treatment plan for you. This is a good time to evaluate a dentist’s manner and care and to make sure that this office is right for you. Take note of the equipment used, too. A dentist who relies on older techniques can provide excellent care, but newer technology, some of which is described in this article, can make checkups faster, less painful, and more thorough.