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Dentists: Doctors of Oral Health

Introduction

Many Americans today enjoy excellent oral health and are keeping their natural teeth throughout their lives. But this is not the case for everyone. Cavities are still the most prevalent chronic disease of childhood.

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.

A Team Approach

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.

The Dentist's Role

Dentists are doctors who specialize in oral health. Their responsibilities include:

  • Diagnosing oral diseases.
  • Promoting oral health and disease prevention.
  • Creating treatment plans to maintain or restore the oral health of their patients.
  • Interpreting x-rays and diagnostic tests.
  • Ensuring the safe administration of anesthetics.
  • Monitoring growth and development of the teeth and jaws.
  • Performing surgical procedures on the teeth, bone and soft tissues of the oral cavity.

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.

More than Just Teeth and Gums

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.

Education and Clinical Training

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.

Why Oral Health Matters

Numerous recent scientific studies indicate associations between oral health and a variety of general health conditions — including diabetes and heart disease. In response, the World Health Organization has integrated oral health into its chronic disease prevention efforts "as the risks to health are linked."

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. 

Improving the Nation's Oral Health

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.

  • Most states spend 2 percent or less of their Medicaid budgets on dental services.
  • An estimated 164 million work hours are lost each year due to oral disease.

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.

Dental Specialty Education and Training (Beyond a 4-Year College Degree)*

Specialty

Description

Residency Education

Dental Public Health

Preventing and controlling dental disease through organized community efforts

5–6 years**

Endodontics

Diagnosing, preventing and treating diseases and injuries of dental pulp and surrounding tissues; performing root canals

6 years

Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology

Research, identification and diagnosis of diseases of mouth, teeth and surrounding regions

7 years

Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology

Diagnosing and managing oral diseases and disorders using x-rays, other forms of imaging

6 years

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

Diagnosing and surgically treating disease and injuries of mouth, oral and maxillofacial region

8 to 10 years***

Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics

Diagnosing, intercepting and correcting dental and facial irregularities

6 years

Pediatric Dentistry

Diagnosing and treating the oral health care needs of infants and children through adolescence

6 years

Periodontics

Diagnosing and treating diseases of gum tissue and bones supporting teeth

6 years, 6 months

Prosthodontics

Restoring natural teeth or replacing missing teeth or oral structures with artificial devices, such as dentures

7 years

* Many but not all dentists complete a 4-year college degree before entering dental school; some enter dental school after 3 years.
** Many dental public health specialists also complete a two-year Master's degree in public health.

*** Many oral and maxillofacial surgeons obtain medical (M.D.) degrees in conjunction with their programs.


General Dentistry Education (Beyond a 4-Year College Degree)*

Area of General Dentistry

Description

Residency Education

Advanced Education in General Dentistry

Provide emergency and multidisciplinary comprehensive care in multiple environments; care for patients with special needs.

5–6 years

Advanced General Dentistry Education Programs in Dental Anesthesiology

Deliver anxiety and pain control services for emergency and comprehensive, multidisciplinary care; function in hospitals, dental offices and surgery centers.

6 years

Advanced General Dentistry Education Programs in Oral Medicine

Act as primary care providers for patients with chronic, medically-related conditions of the oral and maxillofacial region.

6 years

General Practice Residency

Emphasis on care of patients with complex health conditions or special needs, hospital dentistry and coordination with other health providers.

5–6 years

* Many but not all dentists complete a 4-year college degree before entering dental school; some enter dental school after 3 years.