Letters: Dentists

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For the past few days, we've been inundated with letters from dentists upset over our interview with behavioral economist Dan Ariely about the relationship between dentists and their patients. NPR's Melissa Block and Mary Louise Kelly read from their e-mails.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to some of your comments about the program. For the last few days, we have been inundated with letters from dentists.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Angry dentists. They're upset over our interview with behavioral economist Dan Ariely. We talked about the relationship between dentists and their patients. At one point, Ariely said that if you ask two dentists to identify cavities from the same X-ray, they'll only agree about half the time

Mr. DAN ARIELY (Behavioral Economist): Imagine you're a dentist, and you see a patient, and you really want to find a cavity because you get paid more if you find cavities, and you can fix them. And the patient is already on the chair. He's already prepped. You might give them the treatment right now, really good marginal income for you.

How is this motivation to find cavities will influence your ability? Now, you look at an X-ray, which is a little fuzzy and unclear, and there are shadows, and all kinds of things are happening. What happens is this unclarity, thus the X-ray, helps in some sense the dentist to interpret noise as signals and find cavities where there aren't really.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And fill them?

Mr. ARIELY: And fill them.

BLOCK: Well, typical of the outraged letters we received was this from William Vargo of Salt Lake City, Utah. I am a dentist, he writes, and I have firsthand experience with reading X-rays and making a correct diagnosis on behalf of my patients. It is not a responsibility I take lightly or, as implied in Mr. Ariely's comments, I do not read X-rays with the thought in mind to make money.

Dr. Vargo goes on to say, I find it very offensive that NPR would promote the misrepresentation that dentists in America are out to rip off the American public.

KELLY: Well, Lynn Shuler of Newport Beach, California also took issue with the segment. She writes: After practicing dentistry for 35 years, I never had to make up cavities so I could profit from doing a filling.

Believe me, there's more legitimate dental disease out there than any dentist can treat. Mr. Ariely's sorry attempts at humor do a disservice to a profession I've been proud to devote my professional life to.

BLOCK: And Lawrence Lizzack of Fairlawn, New Jersey points out that far from profiteering, dentists, he says, are constantly trying to put ourselves out of business by encouraging our patients to maintain healthy teeth and bodies.

KELLY: Finally, we heard from the dental insurance company Delta Dental, which Dan Ariely cited in his interview. Company spokesman Chris Pyle writes: We're normally fans of Dr. Ariely's work, but he should not have made reference to Delta Dental when stating that 50 percent of the time dentists will interpret X-rays differently.

Delta Dental has no data that could lead to any such conclusion. Delta Dental processes 84 million claims a year for 54 million customers, so obviously we're interested in making sure those claims are accurate.

That's why we employ dentists throughout the country to review claims for accuracy. Still, he writes, we understand that conclusions made in the medical arts, like other arts, are prone to some degree of subjectivity and interpretation.

BLOCK: Thanks for your comments. We always want to hear from you, dentists or otherwise. You can write to us at npr.org. Click on contact us at the bottom of the page.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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