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How to Choose the Right Orthodontist

Joanne Helperin

Orthodontics is about more than a nice looking set of chompers. It's also a serious matter of oral health. Orthodontics specializes in your "bite" – how your top and bottom teeth align. Your bite is critically important to speech and swallowing, and to preventing tooth decay, gum disease, grinding, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). An orthodontist spends an extra two to three years after dental school in specialized training. With that much at stake, it’s important to choose the right match when you or your child needs orthodontic treatment. Here are seven tips to help you with the big decision.
  1. Get referrals from friends and family: Ask people you trust to describe what they have had done -- is it similar to the kind of treatment you might need? What did they like or dislike about the doctor, the assistants, or the facility? Oral surgeons are also a great source of referrals. You could ask your dentist, but dentists often perform minor orthodontic procedures, so there may be a conflict of interest.
  2. Confirm the doctor's educational pedigree: To become an orthodontist, someone must complete four years of dental school, then two to three years of specialized study in orthodontics. Find out where the doctor went to dental school and did their orthodontic residency. Dentists can also choose to become board certified  by undergoing hundreds of additional hours of training, but only one in three orthodontists choose to do so.
  3. Choose a convenient office location: Orthodonture often requires repeat visits over a long time period, so choose an orthodontist convenient to your local area, whether it's your home, your office, or school. Is there onsite or offsite parking or nearby public transit? How long is the average wait to be seen? What are the office hours – is it easy to make and get to appointments before or after school or work?
  4. Get a second opinion … and a third: Doctors have different ways to treat the same problem. Some are more aggressive. Some require more discipline from you or your child to achieve what they call "a good resolve." Take the time to be evaluated by several doctors and ask what treatment he or she would recommend. "A good orthodontist will tell you the limitations of certain treatments in certain conditions," explains Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, who runs a successful practice in Beverly Hills, California. "Just because something's on 'Oprah' doesn't make it right for your kid. It's more about the doctor than the type of braces." Orthodontists usually provide a free first evaluation, so shopping for a doctor shouldn't mean you pay over and over. I highly recommended taking along our list of "Top 10 Questions to Ask an Orthodontist" to help fine-tune your interviews.
  5. Check your insurance: Orthodontic coverage is part of dental insurance, but many dental plans don't include it, or if they do, it only covers children. (Almost 30 percent of all orthodontic patients in the U.S. are adults.)1 Call your dental insurer to be sure of coverage, limits, exclusions, and to learn whether you need to use a doctor from an approved list before you begin your hunt.
  6. Ask for a list of cost estimates: Cost varies depending on the nature and length of treatment, but they can be shocking. Expect to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket, even if you have insurance. When you meet with the doctor, learn how costs are determined and what is included … and what isn't. Clear braces like Invisalign may be appealing, but they cost more. Treatment doesn't end just because the braces come off, so ask about the cost of any "retention period" (when retainers are worn). The doctor may offer different ways to pay, such as interest-free financing, payment plans with or without down payments, a discount for full payment up front, or bank financing.
  7. Trust your gut: If the patient is a child, are both you and your child comfortable with the doctor, the support staff, and the cleanliness of the office? Does the doctor take your child seriously, including him or her in the discussion? Many treatments require 24 monthly visits, so the doctor should be someone who is patient and able to truly listen to your concerns or your child's complaints if something about the braces or oral appliances isn't comfortable.
Choosing the right orthodontist isn't always simple. If you're willing to put in the time to interview several professionals, you'll feel more confident with a decision whose effects will last a lifetime.

See the Top 10 Questions to Ask an Orthodontist

1 American Association of Orthodontists, New Study Shows Record Number of Adults are Seeking Orthodontic Treatment." 1/28/16.

Joanne Helperin is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor and marketer. Dubbed "The Research Queen" by friends and family, she’s known for leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of stories on health, business, news, technology, and lifestyle. She has written for digital, print and broadcast for more than 20 years. 
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