Top 10 Questions to Ask an Orthodontist

Joanne Helperin

Orthodonture is a little like a relationship: Easy enough to get into, but much harder to back out of. Before you invest time and hard-earned cash in this long-term medical affair, ask all the important questions of your potential orthodontist, so there are no unpleasant surprises down the road.

Getting braces comes with questions.
  • When would you recommend starting treatment? The American Association of Orthodontics recommends that parents bring a child for an orthodontic evaluation by age 7 – as the incisors (front teeth) come in. While treatment may not begin at that age, early evaluation can intercept a developing problem that could negatively affect the rest of the teeth and jaw. Typically, these initial evaluations are free.
  • When should we return for a follow-up evaluation/treatment? Orthodontists want to evaluate patients (or potential patients) over time to monitor development. He or she will likely recommend a "recall program" of visits spaced between six months and a year until treatment begins.
  •  Which treatment options do you recommend and why? Although orthodontists all go through similar training, they may have different approaches to treatment. "It gets confusing, because you can go to four doctors and get four opinions," said Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, who practices in Beverly Hills, California. "You have to choose what's best for your child." For example, some doctors may prefer a treatment that doesn't rely on "patient compliance," such as your child following instructions to wear headgear for the minimum number of hours. Although it's counterintuitive, removing compliance from the scenario altogether isn't necessarily better. So it's also important to ask:
  • What will be required after treatment? "One of the most frustrating things for orthodontists is when patients get their braces off and assume they're done," said Cohen. If patients don't follow the after-treatment plan – often involving retainers and the occasional follow-up visit – they risk the teeth and jaw losing the alignment they've worked so hard to achieve.
  • What will this treatment cost, and what are my finance options? Oral health company Oral-B estimates $3,000 - $10,000 just for braces. Many doctors offer interest-free payment plans that stretch over the course of treatment or discounts for up-front payment. Ask if everything on this list is included in the price estimate:
    • appointments
    • molds
    • appliances
    • x-rays
    • photographs
    • retainers
    • follow-up visits
    • additional Invisalign aligners
    • Also ask: Will you be charged more if the treatment isn't finished in the original time estimate?
  • What is your success rate with this type of treatment? Orthodonture is complicated, with myriad factors influencing the outcome. Success rates for braces are different from those of jaw alignment, so ask about each part of the treatment. Knowing what "success" looks like – and what the patient has to do to achieve it -- is critical to satisfaction down the road.
  • Does your office work directly with insurance companies? It's one thing for a doctor's office to say it "accepts" insurance, but will the office staff call your insurer to confirm that the doctor is on their "list," if the desired treatment is covered, and what your deductible and co-pay are?
  • Does the type of braces chosen make a difference in the outcome? Invisible braces may be all the rage, but in addition to being more expensive, they're not right for every patient. There are more choices than ever, so make sure to know your options.
  • Who puts the braces on and makes the adjustments? Orthodontic assistants take X-rays, photos, molds, and thread wires through braces. In some places, they also do the initial evaluation, place the braces, and adjust the tension, but ideally, these functions should be reserved for the orthodontist, so it's important to ask up front.
  • What happens if we lose or break the appliance? Yes, it happens, and it can happen to you. Depending on what's lost and at what point in treatment, the doctor will charge you for replacement -- often hundreds of dollars. Make sure your child knows that appliances must be treated carefully. Have a specific place where it stays when not in use.
Don't be afraid to ask all these questions of each orthodontist you interview. Orthodontists are used to them, and they strongly prefer clients who enter the process educated and informed -- all the better to have a long, healthy relationship (and a healthy smile).

See: How to Choose the Right Orthodontist.

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.