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Grinding my teeth

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I (Vik) have not written a blog post for TSW in some time. Al is quite capable of regularly exposing the wellness industry’s foibles, an easy task given that there is an endless supply of material, and it multiplies faster than bunnies.

However, I occasionally have an up-close-and-personal interaction that is well worth recounting. My son and I recently visited our dentist for the ritualized annual cleaning and check up. We only go once a year, because as a clinician myself it’s been patently obvious to me for some time that twice yearly cleanings, the benefits of which last only until the next burger, and dental check-ups, which are just a search for billable things to fix, are no more beneficial to the health of my mouth than they are to any other part of my body. What matters is the daily routine of brushing and of avoiding sugar-laden foods. Unless you’ve been sleeping through emerging research, you know by now that I am not the only person to reach this conclusion.

Then I met K, a registered dental hygienist I’ve never previously interacted with at our dentist’s office in the St. Louis suburbs. Within 60 seconds of me reclining in the exam chair, the following exchange took place:

K: “I see that you don’t like having x-rays taken. Is there a reason?”

Me: “There is no evidence that screening x-rays have clinical value.”

K: “Do you have dental insurance?”

Me: “Yes.”

K: “Do you pay for the dental insurance?”

Me: “How is it any of your business how I get the coverage?”

K: “Because if you have dental insurance, the cleanings and x-rays are free, so there is no reason for you to not get them.”

Me (growing increasingly annoyed and now zeroed in like a laser beam): “The dental insurance is part of the compensation package my wife’s employer provides her. Nothing is free. There is a cost to everything.”

K: “Oh, I guess that’s right. Well, anyway, you should have the x-ray to prevent future problems.”

Me: “What your evidence that x-rays prevent problems? X-rays don’t prevent anything. It’s just a way for you to look for things that may or may not ever amount to anything, except that you can paid to deal with them.”

K (now slowly realizing that she has perhaps ventured out of her exceedingly small safe zone): “The American Dental Association….”

Me: “The American Dental Association? That’s not evidence; that’s a trade group. I am not here to get x-rays [I am completely asymptomatic and have a wonderful, clean, healthy mouth], and that’s not open to negotiation.”

K: “Well, if you don’t have x-rays at least once every three years, we will be happy to refer you to another practice [a ‘policy’ never once articulated to me in six years of going to this dental practice], and that’s not open to negotiation. I also need you to sign a waiver that you declined the x-ray against our advice.”

Me: “Have you read any of the new research about dental industry practices, such bite wing x-rays, twice yearly exams, and even flossing. There’s no evidence for any of it. The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, they’ve all covered it. Have you seen any of it?”

K: “Finding things early [on x-rays] is how you prevent problems.

Me: “Prove to me how that’s the case. You are 100%, utterly and completely wrong, and nothing you’ve told me is evidence.”

At that point she got up in a huff and left the exam room, returning after two or three minutes to, finally, blessedly, actually do her job instead of showcasing her ignorance.

My point in recounting this exchange is this: all the hulabaloo about consumer directed healthcare is garbage if the consumer is faced with quasi-professionals like K, who is blissfully unaware of basic health economics, let alone the changing character of the science and the evidence base for her occupation. According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, there are 200,000 dental hygienists, and over 10 years, that figure will grow by nearly 19%. Suppose, conservatively, that each of these hygienists does two cleanings daily over 200 working days per year. That’s 80 million consumer interactions like this one where the paying customer is subjected to intrusion, clinical mythology, deception, and the threat of “dismissal” from the practice for non-compliance with a non-evidence based, but cash-producing pointless clinical service. How many consumers are willing to tell their hygienist or anyone else in a white coat (or, in her case, the custom embroidered frock) that they are wrong?

K, who apparently has either no access to the Internet or no interest in professional improvement, was the very image of an unprofessional professional, with no sense of the notion that she’s not in charge of the relationship. I’m the customer, through the good grace of my wife and her employer, who are the payers.  K did a masterful job of channeling the wellness chimera of Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Rajiv Kumar, spouting the virtues of overprevention today, overprevention tomorrow, overprevention forever.

For all her ill-informed foaming at the mouth about what’s good for me, here’s what stuck with me, and what I plan to explore further: she, on behalf of the practice, threatened to “fire” me as a client for failure to have an x-ray. There is no legal requirement anywhere in the Missouri Dental Statutes or Rules for me to submit to any radiograph. Nor do the statutes or rules state that a dental office is permitted to dismiss a client for non-compliance with voluntary and discretionary clinical service. What I’d really like to know (enterprising anti-trust lawyers should contact me) is if this is common practice in St. Louis or Missouri more broadly and if yes, how it came to be so.

Can you spell C-O-L-L-U-S-I-O-N? I’ll bet K. can’t.


A little addendum from Al. The other thing these folks do is “screen” you for mouth cancer. I declined the screen. The hygienist said I was making a mistake, that she has found 9 cases in the last three years. Doing the math, if she is average, dental hygienists are finding 600,000 cases a year of mouth cancer. No easy feat considering there are only about 45,000 new cases a year, almost all of which occur in a small segment of the population — tobacco chewers and alcoholics — to which I don’t belong.  I didn’t have to sign anything and she didn’t threaten to “fire” me, but otherwise it was the basically the same experience Vik had.


3 Comments

  1. whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

    [posted on behalf of Alan Miller]

    Thank you for informing me regarding the unnecessary testing and X-ray diagnostics. I have dutifully gone in for semiannual cleaning and X-rays for decades, but the results are always the same: No issues, and praise for my diligence w.r.t. Dental hygiene. I will certainly change my approach, knowing that this approach has never benefited me, but the dental practices have benefited for decades because of my ignorance! Thank you for educating me.
    Alan

    Like

  2. Nicole Ausmus says:

    I finally “fired” myself from a previous dentist who, while I was pregnant, said we had to get my old metal fillings “out of there asap”. Sounded fishy to me. Quick Google search kept telling me if you’re pregnant, leave those things alone. Only risk is if those kinds of filling are disturbed. That was after a couple of years of said dentist trying to convince my husband and me of “restorative” (aka cosmetic) dental work that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars each. I was wary. How many other patients are not?

    Like

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