If you were looking for orthodontic treatment at a fraction of the usual price tag, you might’ve been disappointed — or worse — if you used online dental aligners
What’s the first thing you notice about a person?
Often, it’s their smile.
A smile can tell you a lot about someone within the first moments you meet them, and most people want their smile — and their teeth — to look good.
Today, there are companies that promise to provide teeth-straightening devices in a way that is affordable and accessible. No expensive orthodontic bills, and you can get the treatment at home. You do an online consultation and the aligners are shipped directly to you. You wear the aligners overnight and they supposedly “fix” your teeth without braces or visits to an orthodontist.
Does this sound too good to be true?
Indeed, it might be.
What is a dental aligner program?
Manufacturers of orthodontic-style aligners produce clear plastic coverings that the user inserts over their teeth in order to straighten them. If you wore braces as a kid or an adult, some companies say the aligners do the same thing, but without the brackets and wires... just a clear plastic removable device that you can wear either during the day or at night.
One company’s big selling point is that the aligners cost $1,950, which can be made in payments of $89 per month, as opposed to traditional braces that can cost more than $5,000 for treatment.
The company, which mainly gained popularity through social media ad campaigns, claims that the aligners can straighten your teeth in an average of 4-6 months, where traditional braces normally take 1-2 years or more.
Plus, it can be handled online and done at home. No office visits, no painful adjustments.
But you know what they say... if something seems too good to be true, it often is.
How online orthodontics works
Some companies offer store locations, where staff take a 3-D image of their teeth. However, most people online-order an at-home kit that they use to make a bite impression.
Once the company has the image or impression of their bite, it creates plastic aligner devices that are sent to the patient to use to correct the alignment of their teeth.
How dental aligners damaged customers’ teeth
In a New York Times story published in January 2020, Denver environmental scientist Taylor Weakley detailed how she’d ordered teeth aligners from SmileDirectClub a few years prior. The products did not correct her teeth and she requested a refund.
The company would only refund her money if she agreed to sign a contract that she would never talk about her experience (that is, a nondisclosure agreement). It was later discovered the company’s method for dealing with complaints was that it would try to limit customers’ ability to share their dissatisfaction.
Several customers said that the aligners not only didn’t do what was promised, but they actually caused problems that required additional dental treatment. They could not receive refunds from SmileDirectClub unless they agreed to confidentiality. They were required to delete negative social media comments or reviews and were not permitted to discuss the company or their experiences with the aligners.
Anna Rosemond told NBC News that she began experiencing pain about a year after she began using SmileDirectClub aligners and she’d followed the instructions carefully. She said her bite didn’t feel right, and that she had frequent headaches.
Rosemond tried to follow up with the company but its staff dentists didn’t respond. She then visited her own orthodontist and was diagnosed with a misalignment that could’ve been caused by the aligners. Her orthodontist said her other symptoms that included neck and jaw muscle strains were likely causing her migraines.
Protections for patients using teledentistry
Teledentistry, like telehealth, uses electronic information, imaging, and communication to provide dental care, diagnosis, consultation, and treatment to patients who engage with a provider only online.
Many people used some form of telehealth during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to receive necessary medical care without having to visit a doctor’s office or healthcare facility.
But some companies were offering these services long before COVID-19 as a way for customers who didn’t live near their store locations to use its products by ordering online.
The American Dental Association (ADA) and American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) have opposed companies that sell aligners and others that offer dental practices that they have described as “endangering patients.”
The ADA submitted a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) because it says some dental aligner companies engage in misleading claims and deceptive practices.
The ADA says plastic teeth aligners are a Class II medical device that requires a prescription and that some online companies are evading the restriction, which therefore puts the public at risk.
The state of California enacted a law to protect consumers from certain practices of teledentistry companies. One provision says that even if a customer signs a nondisclosure agreement, they are still permitted to submit a complaint to the state dental board.
How can you protect yourself against deceptive practices in teledentistry?
If you need dental treatment or orthodontic correction, it’s best to consult your own dentist. If you don’t have a dentist, you can ask your primary physician for a referral.
If you’re still considering teledentistry, here are 14 questions to ask, as recommended by the AAO:
- Are x-rays and other diagnostics performed prior to beginning your treatment? Do you know if your teeth and gums are healthy enough for orthodontic treatment?
- Does your treatment include any in-person visits to a dentist or orthodontist?
- How can you contact a dentist or orthodontist who is overseeing your treatment?
- If you have a dentist or orthodontist managing your case, do you know how to access their education and credentials, along with state licensing?
- Is there a way to contact a dentist or orthodontist if you have an emergency?
- If there’s an emergency, does the teledentistry provider have in-person dentists or orthodontists in your area that you can visit?
- Is there more than one type of treatment available?
- How is a decision being made for the best treatment model for you, and who makes the decision?
- Do you know the risks associated with your treatment?
- Is there someone you can talk to about your treatment at any time? If so, what’s the person’s background, education, qualifications, and experience with orthodontics?
- If any problems or issues arise during your treatment, whose responsibility is to detect and identify those complications?
- If you need additional treatment in person that’s related to your teledentistry treatment, who pays for those visits?
- Does your contract or service agreement with the teledentistry provider include a provision for how a dispute would be handled? In other words, does it require arbitration, litigation, etc.?
- What rights do you have against the company if you become injured as a result of your treatment?
Lawsuits against SmileDirectClub
SmileDirectClub was the defendant in a class-action lawsuit.
The first plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit claimed his dentist said the aligners applied too much pressure on his teeth, which caused them to crack. This resulted in pain in his teeth and gums. The plaintiff said he was told never to wear the aligners again and that they had “really damaged” his teeth.
Other users said the aligners caused their gums to bleed or recede, and loosened their teeth.
In the class-action case, the plaintiffs’ claimed that:
- The company’s aligners worsened the condition of their teeth.
- SmileDirectClub tried to stifle patients’ complaints and concerns.
- It’s not clear whether SmileDirectClub actually partners with dentists and orthodontists to oversee treatment, as the company says it does.
Plaintiffs drop the class-action lawsuit against SmileDirectClub
Most consumers who claimed SmileDirectClub was falsely advertising its products and services dropped out of the lawsuit in December 2019. (source)
There’s also a group of orthodontists involved in litigation against SmileDirectClub, and the company has asked the court to dismiss their case. A subsequent class-action lawsuit against the company was dismissed in February 2020.
There continue to be lawsuits for a variety of issues facing dental aligner retailers.
What to do if you were injured by dental aligners or teledentistry
As a consumer, there are steps you can take if you’ve suffered an injury as a result of a dental aligner or orthodontic telehealth treatment.
You don’t need to be part of a class action in order to file a lawsuit. If you believe you’ve suffered an injury because of dental aligner products or services — or any medical device company — you can consult a lawyer about a defective product lawsuit.
You should be compensated for any treatment that was required to correct damage caused by the aligners, along with the cost of the aligners and any other fees paid to an online telehealth retailer.
As always, if you’re considering medical or dental treatment from an online company, it’s a good idea to consult your primary doctor or dentist beforehand.
If you are injured, you can use the Enjuris law firm directory to find an attorney in your area who can help you determine whether you have a claim, where and how to file a lawsuit, and what you can expect to recover in damages.
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