Overview of Topic
For Additional Research
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Search Topic 40:

Checking Out Dentists

Web Search Guides

by Lynne Lamstein, Assistant Editor

Part I. Overview of Topic

All dentists must graduate from a dental school and be licensed to practice dentistry in their state.  Beyond these basic requirements, dentists vary greatly in their skills and expertise.  You need to make sure the dentist you choose meets your needs and expectations.
First, some terminology --

Dentists can either have DMD or DDS attached to their names. The two degrees are equal; some dental schools give one and some give the other. A DMD receives the same education and training as a DDS.

Dentists must complete a four-year course of study to practice general dentistry. Some study another two to four years in order to specialize. The eight recognized dental specialties are:

  1. Dental public health: Prevention and control of dental disease and promotion of community dental health

  2. Endodontics: Prevention and treatment of diseases of the root pulp and related structures (root canal therapy)

  3. Oral and maxillofacial pathology: Diagnosis of tumors, other diseases, and injuries of the head and neck

  4. Oral and maxillofacial surgery: Tooth extractions; surgical treatment of diseases, injuries, and defects of the mouth, jaw, and face

  5. Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics: Diagnosis and correction of tooth irregularities and facial deformities

  6. Pediatric dentistry: Dental care of infants and children

  7. Periodontics: Treatment of diseases of the gums and related structures

  8. Prosthodontics: Treatment of oral dysfunction through the use of prosthetic devices such as crowns, bridges, and dentures

Developing a List of Dentists to Consider

Not long ago it was common to get the name of a dentist from a friend, relative, or co-worker. Or maybe you’d just choose a name from the yellow pages. For better or worse, the Internet affords opportunities for making a decision based on more comprehensive information.

Friends, relatives, and coworkers are still good sources for names of dentists. You can also get names from medical doctors, pharmacists, dental schools, dental insurance companies, dental specialists, and dental laboratories.

But don't overlook the Internet. Referral sites like and have names of dentists by location. However, be aware that dentists pay to be listed on these sites (though there's no charge to you to use them). And remember --- these are ads, not recommendations. You can also find names through Revolution Health,, an online health site with tons of information. Consumers can enter reviews of dentists, but none of the dentists I checked had reviews, yet.

Every state has a dental licensing board that lists every licensed dentist in the state. You can usually find your state’s dental board on the state’s website, often in the licensing section. Or go to Dental Watch ( for links to all state dental licensing boards.

Evaluating the Dentists

Once you have a list of prospective dentists, you can evaluate and compare to decide which one is for you. Here’s a three-step evaluation process:

1. Before you make an appointment --

Ask your dental licensing board ( about each dentist on your list. Some states do this online, but others require a call. Ask if your candidates are licensed to practice dentistry in your state. The various states have different levels of licensure; ask about that. Once you confirm that a dentist is licensed, ask if there are any actionable complaints about that dentist. Actionable means that a complaint has been investigated and found to have merit, resulting in some action against the dentist.

Dental malpractice is handled through insurance companies and the courts. Dental boards don’t have that information.

Now your list has only licensed dentists without actionable complaints. Next step is a phone call to each office. Here are some questions you might want to ask.

  • Ask about fees for standard procedures such as full mouth x-rays and preventive visits with oral exam and teeth cleaning so you can compare costs.

  • If accessibility is a concern, find out if the office can accommodate your needs.

  • If you know you need a certain procedure, make sure the dentist does it.

  • Do they take your insurance? Are they willing to work out a flexible payment plan?

  • Check to see if the dentist has a website. If so it could tell you a lot about the style and professionalism of that dentist.

    Compare what you've found out so far and narrow your search to two or three possibilities.

2. Meeting the dentist --

Make an appointment with each dentist on your pared down list. Ideally this will be a free visit, not a paid consultation. During the appointment, here are some things to check out:

  • Is the office clean, neat, and friendly?

  • What are the arrangements for emergencies? Some dentists don’t handle emergencies because of low insurance reimbursement.

  • If you are considering cosmetic dentistry, ask for before and after photos.

  • If you know you need a particular procedure, ask how many times the dentist has done it.

  • How many years has the dentist been in practice in this state? Other states?

3. Your first clinical visit --

If you find a dentist that passes muster on the above points, you're ready for your first clinical visit. Here are a few things to watch out for when “in the chair” and getting treatment.

  • Do the dentist and all assistants wash their hands before and after treatment, even if they wear gloves?

  • Do all practitioners explain what they are about to do before they do it?

  • Does the dentist offer preventive treatment recommendations?

  • Does the dentist clearly explain any treatment, giving options and alternatives?

  • Does the dentist follow a treatment plan tailored to your own situation? Beware of dentists who recommend elaborate treatment plans.

If the first dentist on your list survives all this scrutiny, Congratulations! You have a dentist. But if you’re not satisfied --- because of the work, the atmosphere, the sanitation, whatever reason --- check out dentist number two. It may be a tedious process, but the next time you get a tooth ache you’ll have a competent dentist to turn to.

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources.

Consumers Research compiles a guide to top dentists:

The Consumers Research guide includes a list of dental associations:

At ChoiceTrust ( you can find out whether a dentist has an active license and a clean history. They charge $11.95 for a one-day pass that allows you to check out multiple dentists. A single report is $7.95. You can get this information for free from your state dental licensing board, but if your dentist has (or you think has) practiced in other states, it may be worth paying for a nationwide report.

The American Dental Association ( has data on member dentists as well as helpful information about the practice of dentistry. You can also find contact information for state dental associations through ADA.

Federally funded health centers provide low- or no-cost dental care. Go to to find one near you.

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