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Consumer

Can you trust your dentist?

By Lottie Watts
8/10/2012 © Health News Florida

I was overdue for a dental check-up and feeling guilty about it when I got a coupon in the mail from a dentist's office.

It offered new patients a free exam with X-rays. For $84, I could get a cleaning at the same time.

Having moved to St. Petersburg for graduate school, I lacked both a dentist and dental insurance. So I booked it. 

It was a well-equipped office, with a flat screen TV on the wall so I could see inside my own mouth.

After X-rays and the hygienist’s cleaning, the dentist came in to check my teeth. She had another woman with her, who just stood in the corner and watched.

After some probing, the dentist informed me I had six cavities.

Six cavities? I was shocked. I had always taken good care of my teeth, and had only two fillings in my 24 years.

The cost of filling six cavities would be $1,504.

The dentist stressed that if I didn’t take care of the cavities now, I would face more serious, and more expensive, problems.

The other woman in the room, it turned out, was a payment advisor. She explained my options: cash, major credit card or third-party financing. She recommended that I sign up for Chase HealthAdvance, which offers 0% interest if you pay within 12 months

The application took mere minutes. I booked the appointments for the fillings, and my new credit card was charged.

It wasn’t until my drive home that what had happened started to hit me. I was taking on a payment of more than $100 each month, and if I didn’t pay it off in a year, the interest rate would jump to 27.99%. And how did I know I really had the six cavities the dentist said I did?

I wanted a second opinion but I didn’t really know where to go. Something just didn’t feel right.

Three days later, I called to cancel my appointments and get the charge removed from my card. I went to the clinic and paid $35 for a copy of my X-rays. I asked friends for referrals to other dentists and searched the Internet, but after my experience, I was reluctant to try another new place. Three months passed.

When I was able to go home on break, I booked an appointment at the dental office I’d been going to for more than 20 years in Elmira, N.Y.  At Chemung Family Dental, Dr. Richard Dunn saw no cavities on the X-rays I brought from the St. Pete office. He poked around in my mouth, and said aloud he thought one tooth needed a filling. A couple more were questionable, he said.

Dr. Dunn filled one tooth and applied sealant to two more. The total came to just $204. In other words, $1,300 less than the Florida dentist wanted.

When I returned to St. Pete, I called the dental clinic to seek an explanation. But neither the dentist who examined my teeth nor her boss, the dentist who owned the clinic, would return my calls.

They did not appreciate my questions. I received a certified letter saying I would not be welcome there as a patient in the future and that I needed to find another dentist. It was my first experience at being “fired” as a patient.

How could there be such a wild variation in diagnosis and recommended treatment? I have asked the Florida Department of Health, which licenses dentists, to find out.

--Lottie Watts is Health News Florida's editorial assistant and can be reached at Lottie.Watts@healthnewsflorida.org.