There are ways to comparison shop in the hunt for a dentist

If you don’t have a dentist, finding one should be at the top of your health care agenda.

If you need a good dentist, Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook can help you find one. Our independent nonprofit surveyed thousands of Twin Cities-area consumers about their experiences with local dentists.

Among hundreds that received at least 10 ratings, many were rated “superior” for “overall care and service quality” by more than 95% of their surveyed patients. In contrast, others got such favorable ratings from 65% or fewer of their surveyed patients.

Until Oct. 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its unbiased ratings of area dentists for quality and price to Star Tribune readers via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Dentists.

If you don’t carry dental insurance, you need to check prices. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found big fee differences among local dental practices. For example, fees for a routine examination and cleaning for an established patient ranged from $54 to $284, and charges for a new porcelain crown for an adult molar, including post and core, ranged from $1,150 to $2,338.

Ask about specials and discounts. Some practices will offer specials on certain procedures. Others advertise low-priced packages for new patients. Some will offer discounts to special groups, such as senior citizens, students, fire or police professionals, and more. You don’t have to forsake quality to use a dentist who charges low fees. Checkbook found many dentists who receive high ratings for patient care also charge below-average fees.

More important than anything the dentist can do for your mouth is what you can do for yourself. Your dentist or hygienist should thoroughly explain proper brushing and flossing techniques, and offer tips on selecting a toothbrush, floss, toothpaste and other supplies. Equally important, the dentist should periodically have you demonstrate your brushing and flossing techniques so that he or she can suggest improvements.

If a dentist recommends a treatment, always ask for a full description of all the alternatives. Keep in mind that because various treatments require more or less of the dentist’s time — and therefore higher or lower charges — the advice may be colored by self-interest. Be suspicious if a new dentist recommends far more treatment than your previous one did. For instance, if suddenly many silver fillings need to be replaced, several teeth need to be crowned or your gums need extensive surgery.

This is an area where Checkbook receives frequent complaints from surveyed patients. To help you decide on a treatment, your dentist should fully describe the corrections needed. A written treatment plan with costs will help you avoid an unpleasant price surprise — and give you the chance to switch to a lower-cost dentist, if necessary. Almost all dentists will provide free estimates.

Dentists should be willing to work out payment plans or alternative treatments if the costs exceed your means. If the proposed treatment is extensive, consider getting a second opinion from a specialist. While general dentists often refer patients to specialists for difficult root canal treatment (endodontist), gum surgery (periodontist), moving multiple teeth (orthodontist), or removing impacted teeth (oral surgeon), as some dentists become increasingly hungry for business they are trying to tackle these tasks on their own. Not all are qualified to do so.

Check your health plan for dental benefits, especially for dependents younger than 19; the Affordable Care Act mandates pediatric dental coverage on individual and small-group medical plans. Some Medicare Advantage plans include dental coverage, and many “consumer-driven” and “high-deductible” health plans let you set aside funds for dental work.

If you don’t have dental coverage but know you’ll soon need costly dental work, consider joining a dental discount plan; Checkbook found such plans often yield significant savings. But be aware that many top-quality dentists — many rated highest by Checkbook — don’t participate in these programs.

Consider asking for a warranty. Few dentists offer written warranties; more should — at least for major restorative work such as bridges and crowns. Even if they won’t provide a written warranty, discuss your expectations and get them to agree verbally to replace work that fails much sooner than normal, assuming you care for your teeth properly. Regardless of what agreement you have in advance, don’t hesitate to ask for a free replacement if a restoration doesn’t last as long as it should.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local dentists until October 5 at Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Dentists.

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