Whether it's for a routine cleaning or major repairs, vetting the right dentist can be trying.
Dentists and dental malpractice attorneys said patients should do their homework before sitting in a dentist's chair and continue to be cautious even after they've found someone they trust.
"Most dentists are honest, hard working people, but we have way too many that are pushing the envelope and those are the ones you are hearing about," said Dr. Fred Quarnstrom, a Washington state dentist who co-authored the book "Open Wider: Your Wallet Not Your Mouth -- A Consumers Guide to Dentistry."
Experts offered these tips to keep in mind when choosing a dentist:
California consumers can look up dentists' licenses online at www.dbc.ca.gov or tinyurl.com/CA-dentists. The site shows the status of a dentist's license, when it was issued and when it expires. It also lists disciplinary actions the Dental Board of California has taken against a practitioner.
Consumers can also check the licenses of registered dental assistants and other dental workers on the Dental Board's site. Dental hygienists' licenses can be verified on the Dental Hygiene Committee of California's website, www.dhcc.ca.gov.
Even on a first visit, patients can do their part to ensure things go well by being honest about their health issues and medications.
"Be sure the dentist knows about your medical problems regardless of what they are," Quarnstrom warned. Even something like high blood pressure can be an issue.
WATCH FOR TOO MUCH WORK
Dr. Edwin Zinman, a San Francisco-area dental malpractice attorney who is also a periodontist, said unnecessary dental work is a significant problem.
"It's unfortunate so much unnecessary dentistry is being done. It's the exception, not the rule, but however even the exception is just too many and too often," Zinman said.
If the treatment is extensive, ask the dentist what experience and training he or she has with similar cases, Zinman said, and don't hesitate to get a second opinion.
Patients should also expect to be informed of what Zinman calls the ABCs: all reasonable alternatives, benefits and complications of treatment.
"The patient is entitled to be informed by the dentist of all the reasonable options -- and the most conservative and the least expensive (treatment) -- and let the patient make the choice as to which they want," Zinman said.
CHECK OUT 'SPECIALISTS'
Experts cautioned that dentists can perform a wide range of procedures, even if they aren't specialists in one area of treatment.
"(Once you have a dental license), you can do just about everything by law but it doesn't mean you are going to be as skilled in that area," said Todd Osborne, a Santa Cruz attorney.
Some general dentists may have the skills to do a wide range of work, but others may not, the experts said.
Zinman advised consumers to be particularly wary of dentists who say they are a specialist in an area of treatment not recognized by the American Dental Association, such as cosmetics. For a full list of ADA-recognized specialties, visit ada.org/495.aspx.
Zinman recommended patients considering extensive dental work may want to seek a specialist's opinion.
CAREFULLY WEIGH LAWSUITS
Attorneys said patients should not be too quick to judge a dentist based on whether or not any lawsuits have been filed against him or her.
Settlements are often confidential, so the outcome of cases may be hard to discern. Osborne said some dentists settle cases not because they believe they are at fault, but because they don't want to close their practices for a couple weeks to sit in court.
Osborne said he doesn't pay a lot of attention to suits if the cases are spread out over time, but a cluster of cases in a certain period would catch his attention. The attorney doesn't put much weight in small claims cases, either.
"In my experience, that doesn't really mean anything just because anybody that wants to pay their filing fee and file a case against a dentist can do it," he said.
Quarnstrom said he would be leery of a dentist with a history of malpractice lawsuits.
"If you've got somebody with a great history of lawsuits, find somebody who doesn't," he advised.
Zinman said more than five lawsuits might raise a red flag. Patients can always question their dentist about previous lawsuits and what happened, he said.
"If they ask the dentist, they should expect a frank answer," Zinman said.
IF THINGS GO WRONG
Patients who encounter problems they can't work out with their dentist have several options.
Patients can file a complaint with the Dental Board of California. Complaint forms are available at dbc.ca.gov/consumers.
Consumers can also call the California Department of Consumer Affairs, of which the Dental Board is a part, at 800-952-5210.
Consumers can request a peer review of their case, in which dentists from the local dental society review the treatment provided. Patients can call the California Dental Association at 800-232-7645 to request peer review.
A civil lawsuit or small claims case is an option.