5 Signs Your Dentist Is Ripping You Off

a dentist and dental hygienist

Watch out for dentists after your money. | Thinkstock

While there are a number of good dentists out there, Americans have to wade through a lot of scary stuff to find one they can trust. Receiving radically different diagnoses and treatment estimates is, unfortunately, something patients hear about on a regular basis. One frustrated Reader’s Digest writer went to the lengths of getting 50 different treatment estimates from dentists around the country, and the results were shocking. Solely for the fillings and/or crowns they deemed necessary, the dentists’ quotes ranged from $1,197 to $29,850.

In an op-ed in ADA News, the official publication of the American Dental Association, pediatric dentist Jeffrey Camm brought to light a disturbing new trend in dentistry he calls “creative diagnosis.” Camm concedes that diagnosing tooth decay is subjective, but he says the disparities he has seen are “alarming.” The dentists who appear to be conjuring up these diagnoses for profit are even targeting children.

According to Camm, the creative diagnosis problem in American dentistry is perpetuated further by industry events and conferences. Remarking on a lecture at a national meeting, Camm writes, “The take home message from the lecture was, when in doubt always do restorations. Seriously? Whatever happened to minimally invasive dentistry?” Upselling in dentistry is on the rise, according to a Mother Jones article, in part because dental school tuition and debt have doubled since the 1990s.

But patients should be the ones watching their budgets, as well as the health risks associated with enduring unnecessary treatments. According to an in-depth article on the subject from Vox, dentistry in the U.S. has much less oversight than any other branch of medicine. “For a dentist who practices alone, there’s usually no one looking over your shoulder,” Sheldon Stromberg, a retired dentist, explains. “It’s easy to take advantage of people. You’re basically given a blank check.”

That’s why people need to be proactive. Ask your dentist to show you the cavity, so you can see for yourself, whether it’s on an X-ray or using a dental mirror. Of course, there are times when there is a legitimate problem even if you can’t see it or feel any pain. But if you notice red flags or are simply unsure, a second opinion can’t hurt. Trust your instincts if you are skeptical, and never rush into expensive or invasive treatments. “Will you have to pay a little more for another consult?” Camm asks. “Sure. But it could end up saving you a whole lot more in the long run.”

The following list is by no means complete, but these are some of the most common warning signs that could indicate your dentist is ripping you off. If a dentist tries to scam you, report the incident and tell your insurance company. Here are 10 reasons to think twice about trusting your dentist.

1. Loads of expensive treatments

Dentist looking at teeth

If your doctor tells you that you need a ton of expensive treatments, think twice. | iStock.com

If you have little-to-no history of dental problems and a new dentist says you suddenly need thousands of dollars worth of treatments and procedures, you might be getting scammed. According to Vox, this is the most common pattern of fraud. Another red flag is the dentist pressuring you to act quickly but refusing to give details about why it’s medically necessary. Watch out for dentists who insist on replacing all of your old fillings, and be wary of unnecessary crowns, root canals, sealants, veneers, and fluoride treatments.

2. Unnecessary fillings

Doctor looking at pad

Unfortunately, some dentists try to convince you to get more fillings than you need. | iStock.com

The diagnosis of nonexistent cavities is one of the most common scams in the business. This is where second and third opinions can be very useful, especially if your dentist says you suddenly have multiple cavities. If you have no pain and can’t see any evidence of a problem, don’t let a dentist pressure you into getting the fillings done right away. Dentists also tend to fail to counsel patients on the benefits and risks of different types of fillings, some of which contain mercury.

3. Excessive X-rays

Dental x-ray, dentist

Dental X-rays are usually only necessary every two years. | iStock.com

The ADA says healthy patients need a full set of dental X-rays every two years at the most. Some dentists, however, will pressure patients to get them more often despite the risks associated with radiation exposure. Some dentists have falsely claimed that it’s illegal for them to treat someone without getting X-rays first. Jay W. Friedman, a dental adviser to Consumer Reports, recommends pointing out the ADA guidelines on X-rays or offering to sign a waiver. That is, if you want to stick with the dentist. But if the practitioner doesn’t understand your concerns, you should seek a different dentist.

4. Deep teeth cleaning

the dentist

Deep teeth cleaning can cost up to $800. | iStock.com

Deep teeth cleaning, which can also be referred to as scaling or root planing, is a procedure normally reserved for patients with frequent gum infections or periodontal problems. If you don’t have either, don’t let your dentist pressure you into this expensive treatment, which usually is not covered by dental insurance. Deep teeth cleaning, which can cost upwards of $800, is a commonly cited red flag.

5. Specials and deals

the dentist

Be wary of any specials. | iStock.com

Legitimate dentists often caution against practices that advertise specials and deals, such as a free cleaning or a laser dentistry and whitening package. These specials are often a ploy to get you in the door so the dentist can upsell you on expensive treatments, even if they are unnecessary. Mindy Weinman, dentist and professor at SUNY Buffalo dental school, tells Vox, “I would be wary of the big advertisers, who have billboards all over the place and advertise on TV.” These practitioners are likely to favor sales tactics over patient-focused care.