Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team
Last updated on August 4, 2020
How to find a high-quality dentist
When choosing a dentist you can trust, there are 2 factors to consider:
- How the dentist treats you as a person
- The quality of the advice and treatment they provide.
But how do you know if a dentist really cares about the quality of their work? Here is what to look for and expect from a high-quality dentist.
Signs of a good dentist
Qualifications: In the UK, look out for letters behind their name such as MJDF, MFDS or MFGDP, and any specialities or further training they’ve done. Prosthodontics is an excellent all-round speciality, periodontics is a speciality in gum disease, implantology is about (you’ve guessed it) dental implants, and endodontics is a speciality in root canal treatment.
Read the bios on their website to find out if they keep up-to-date with new techniques. Additional dental qualifications and a commitment to further study are signs that they’re enthusiastic about dentistry.
Professional associations and memberships: In the U.S., check what professional associations the dentist belongs to. Examples include the ADA (American Dental Association), the Academy of General Dentistry, your state’s Dental Association, and regional or city Dental Societies. Being a member of these affiliations costs time or money or both, and indicate a dentist who cares about the community.
In the UK, membership of the BDA Good Practice scheme is often a good sign (but lots of good dentists are not members).
- No rush: Appointment slots may be longer than in other dental practices. High-quality dentistry is unhurried and takes time.
- Modern equipment and hygiene: Their treatment room looks modern, tidy and uncluttered. All surfaces and equipment look clean.
Loupes: They wear loupes with a headlight while doing work.
Loupes are little binocular things which are used to magnify the area being worked on. This allows dentists to do much more precise work.
Respect: They want to work in partnership with you, and there should be no feeling of a power imbalance. They are considerate and thoughtful, and take your preferences into account.
They respect their assistant or nurse and treat them well.
Informing and explaining: They take the time to thoroughly explain what is happening in your mouth and why, all treatment options, and costs. (Of course, if you explicitly ask them NOT to be told just yet, that’s a different story.)
They check that you understand, and will clarify things using everyday language – not dental jargon.
They are happy to answer any questions you may have. One great question to ask is “What would you do if it was your tooth/mouth?”
A preventive approach: This includes giving you information and tips on how to look after your teeth and gums, how to stop any problems from getting worse, and showing you cleaning techniques that will work for you.
They will also want to make sure that your teeth are cleaned well. Nowadays, this is usually done by a hygienist. But you could ask your dentist if they can do it at first, so you can build up trust with them. If your dentist routinely does their own cleanings, they should be thorough and allow enough time.
- Concern about your comfort: They will work out a stop signal with you before any treatment, and they will offer you breaks during procedures.
- Referrals to specialists: If they feel that a specialist would be better for a particular treatment, they will offer a referral to a trusted colleague.
- Follow-up: They will contact you afterwards to see how you’re recovering.
Signs that you have a bad dentist
- They haven’t done any serious further courses or training apart from their basic BDS qualification (unless they’re straight out of dental school, of course).
- They treat their dental assistant or nurse badly.
- The treatment room is disorganised and maybe even dirty.
The initial appointment and exam are quick and superficial. As a rough guide, a new patient appointment should take at least 30 minutes (excluding a scale and polish). X-rays should be taken.
Of course, if you’re an anxious or phobic patient, your first appointment may only involve a chat with the dentist, away from the chair.
- They don’t ask about your medical history, allergies etc.
- They don’t listen to you.
- They don’t give you treatment options and decide on a course of action without involving you.
- They don’t properly explain a procedure and don’t get permission from you before carrying it out (failure to obtain informed consent).
- They sigh or look annoyed when you ask questions, or look at their watch.
- They are not concerned about your comfort.
- They propose to carry out root canal treatment without using a dental dam and without using proper magnification.
- They offer treatments but don’t help you prevent problems, and don’t show you how to stop existing problems from getting worse.
- You start out with one dentist but then get switched to a different dentist, without a very good reason.
They push you into treating lots of things at once, rather than slowly building up your confidence and trust. Of course, if you ask them to do things as quickly as possible (for example because you’ve got an important event coming up), that’s a different story!
Rarely, there can be clinical situations where doing everything at the same time can be important for the best-looking results (for example when matching colours on a number of front teeth). But your dentist should be able to explain to you why exactly they are suggesting a particular course of action.
Avoid large dental chains, especially in the United States. The dentists there have to work to meet a quota, and these chains don’t have the best interests of either dentists or patients at heart. If you do a Google search for chains like Aspen Dental or Allcare Dental, you will find a lot of dissatisfied patients (and disillusioned dentists).
Over the last decade, corporate chain practices have become much more common in the UK as well. While they’re not plagued by overtreatment like their U.S. equivalents, it’s best to find an independent dentist who owns or is a partner in the practice. They will be motivated to provide continuity of care and preserve their reputation in the community.
As an anxious patient, once you have found a dentist you like and trust, you will want to stick with them. Dentists are more likely to move on if they are working for a chain.
Beware of holistic dentists: what “holistic” usually means is amalgam-free and often, and in many countries, root-canal-free (which equates to getting silver fillings replaced for no apparent reason and removing teeth which could have been saved).
It’s quackery (check out Quackwatch for more information).
Most dentists nowadays offer cosmetic dentistry. This can be a good sign (see our page on cosmetic dentistry). However, some dentists are in the business of selling cosmetic procedures, sometimes without telling people about any drawbacks or risks. Make sure the emphasis of the website isn’t on smile makeovers. Indeed many an ethical dentist will talk you out of unnecessary cosmetics, even if you think as middle age approaches you might like some! The key thing is to not endanger healthy tooth structure unnecessarily.
Touting sedation as the solution
Some dentists pretend they are interested in helping nervous patients because they think there’s lots of money to be made from them. An emphasis on sedation in combination with smile makeovers can be a bad sign. Be careful when websites state that they have the solution for dental anxiety, and the solution is sedation dentistry (or twilight sleep, or sleep dentistry). If necessary, sedation should be used in addition to having a good relationship with your dentist, not as a replacement. You can find out more here: Ways of Tackling Dental Fears.
LVI dentists (U.S./Canada)
Be careful when websites push cosmetic procedures and place their emphasis on “full-mouth reconstruction” and “complete smile makeovers”. These procedures cost serious money and they may not be in your best interest. This phenomenon is a lot more common in the United States than elsewhere and is subject to much debate in the dentistry world.
Perhaps the most notorious example is LVI dentists and “neuromuscular dentistry”. LVI is short for “Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies”. Sounds impressive? We came across the following spoof advert on the forums of a U.S.-based website called DentalTown:
“Have you seen an LVI dentist lately and been told you need your bite opened by crowning all your teeth and that it will cost you over $50 thousand dollars? Did you know that LVI dentists use an aggressive and controversial philosophy of treating people called neuromuscular dentistry which oftentimes requires what others in the dental profession consider to be extreme overtreatment bordering on malpractice? Surprised? You deserve less. You deserve a doctor who will meet your cosmetic needs in the most conservative manner possible.”
The spoof ad above was written by a dentist as a reaction to a real ad from a group of LVI dentists, which went:
“When it comes to improving your smile, you’re allowed to be choosy. Choose wisely. Cosmetic dentists are not created equally. Surprised? It’s true. In fact, any dentist can say that he or she offers cosmetic dentistry without ever taking one course. You deserve more. You deserve a doctor with advanced training from the prestigious Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies like those on our list.”
The bottom line
There are good dentists out there who take pride in their work and who are also good with nervous patients. Today, thanks to the Internet, finding a good dentist has become easier than ever before.