Dentists: Doctors of Oral Health
- A Team Approach
- The Dentist's Role
- More than Just Teeth and Gums
- Education and Clinical Training
- Why Oral Health Matters
- Improving the Nation's Oral Health
- Dental Specialty Education and Training (Beyond a 4-Year College Degree)
- General Dentistry Education (Beyond a 4-Year College Degree)
- Additional Resources
Too many people mistakenly believe that they need to see a dentist only if they are in pain or think something is wrong, but they're missing the bigger picture. A dental visit means being examined by a doctor of oral health capable of diagnosing and treating conditions that can range from routine to extremely complex.
The American Dental Association believes that a better understanding of the intensive academic and clinical education that dentists undergo, their role in delivering oral health care and, most important, the degree to which dental disease is almost entirely preventable is essential to ensuring that more Americans enjoy the lifelong benefits of good oral health.
The team approach to dentistry promotes continuity of care that is comprehensive, convenient, cost effective and efficient. Members of the team include dental assistants, lab technicians and dental hygienists. Leading the team is the dentist, a doctor specializing in oral health who has earned either a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree or a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree, which are essentially the same.
Dentists are doctors who specialize in oral health. Their responsibilities include:
Dentists' oversight of the clinical team is critical to ensuring safe and effective oral care. Even seemingly routine procedures such as tooth extractions, preparing and placing fillings or administering anesthetics carry potential risks of complications such as infection, temporary or even permanent nerve damage, prolonged bleeding, hematomas and pain.
As doctors of oral health, dentists must be able to diagnose and treat a range of conditions and know how to deal with complications—some of which are potentially life-threatening.
Dentists' areas of care include not only their patients' teeth and gums but also the muscles of the head, neck and jaw, the tongue, salivary glands, the nervous system of the head and neck and other areas. During a comprehensive exam, dentists examine the teeth and gums, but they also look for lumps, swellings, discolorations, ulcerations—any abnormality. When appropriate, they perform procedures such as biopsies, diagnostic tests for chronic or infectious diseases, salivary gland function, and screening tests for oral cancer.
In addition, dentists can spot early warning signs in the mouth that may indicate disease elsewhere in the body. Dentists' training also enables them to recognize situations that warrant referring patients for care by dental specialists or physicians.
The level of education and clinical training required to earn a dental degree, and the high academic standards of dental schools, are on par with those of medical schools and are essential to preparing dentists for the safe and effective practice of modern oral health care.
Most dental students have earned Bachelor of Science degrees or their equivalent, and all have passed rigorous admission examinations.
The curricula during the first two years of dental and medical schools are essentially the same—students must complete such biomedical science courses as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, immunology and pathology. During the second two years, dental students' coursework focuses on clinical practice—diagnosing and treating oral diseases. After earning their undergraduate and dental degrees (eight years for most) many dentists continue their education and training. Some go on to achieve certification in one of nine recognized dental specialties.
Upon completing their training, dentists must pass both a rigorous national written examination and a state or regional clinical licensing exam in order to practice. As a condition of licensure, they must meet continuing education requirements for the remainder of their careers, to keep them up-to-date on the latest scientific and clinical developments.
The American Dental Association recommends that dental visits begin no later than a child's first birthday to establish a "dental home." Dentists can provide guidance to children and parents, deliver preventive oral health services, and diagnose and treat dental disease in its earliest stages. This ongoing dental care will help both children and adults maintain optimal oral health throughout their lifetimes.
Dentists' areas of care include not only their patients' teeth and gums but also the muscles of the head, neck and jaw, the tongue, salivary glands, the nervous system of the head and neck and other areas.
Despite all we know about the importance of oral health to overall health, to people's self-esteem and to their employability, state and federal policies continually sell dental care short.
The American Dental Association is committed to improving the nation's oral health through public education and through legislative advocacy to strengthen funding for dental services provided through public health programs.
Together, we can work to improve America's oral health and give all of us something to smile about.
- In only one month of release, the ADA satellite media tour "Dentists Are Doctors of Oral Health" has aired 158 times and reached more than 4.5 million viewers. Read the ADA News article Satellite media tour emphasizes dentists' role on health care team for more information and access to video footage from the media tour.
- Download the brochure version of Dentists: Doctors of Oral Health (PDF)