Objectives: The first comprehensive review of the recent literature regarding variation in dentists' clinical treatment decisions is presented.
Methods: Variation among dentists in the clinical decisions they make as well as the methods used for assessing this variation are examined at three levels of aggregation of clinical decisions: the dental practice (or dentist), the patient, and the individual tooth.
Results: The extent to which differences in dentists' clinical decisions have been examined is limited. Studies are particularly sparse at the level of the dental practice, where the aggregate of dentists' treatment decisions is reflected. Further, the methods and measures used to assess variation tend to be different across studies, making quantification of variation difficult. Nevertheless, the available information reflects substantial variation in measures such as rates of provision of specific procedures; cost and numbers of procedures recommended for specific patients; and diagnoses, intervention decisions, and treatment selections for individual teeth.
Conclusions: Even when differences in patients are controlled, variation in dentists' clinical decisions is ubiquitous. While its consequences remain undetermined, the variation in basic clinical decisions such as caries diagnosis signals the need to consider the extent to which the appropriateness of care is affected.