What Do Dentists Do?
Dentists: Doctors of Oral Health
Most 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 and millions of Americans did not see a dentist in the past year, even though regular dental examinations and good oral hygiene can prevent most dental disease.
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 Dentist’s Role
Dentists are doctors who specialize in oral health. Their responsibilities include:
- Diagnosing oral diseases
- 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.
- Managing oral trauma and other emergency situations
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. Dentists’ oversight of the clinical team is critical to ensuring safe and effective oral care.
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 the equivalent, and all have passed rigorous admissions 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 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 to their careers, to keep them up-to-date on the latest scientific and clinical developments.
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.
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, and the nervous system of the head and neck. 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.
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 b oth children and adults maintain optimal oral health throughout their lifetimes.
Together, we can work to improve America's oral health and give all of us something to smile about.
Years of Specialty Training Beyond a Four-Year Dental Degree
- Pediatric Dentistry - Oral health care needs of infants and children through adolescence – Schooling lasts 25 months after dental school
- Endodontics - Health of dental pulp, the soft core of teeth, specializes in performing root canals – Schooling lasts 26 months after dental school
- Periodontics – Treats diseases of the gum tissue and bone supporting the teeth – Schooling lasts 35 months after dental school
- Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics – Correcting dental and facial irregularities – Schooling lasts 30 months after dental school
- Prosthodontics – Restoring natural teeth or replacing missing teeth or oral structures with artificial devices, such as dentures – Schooling lasts 32 months after dental school
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery – Surgical Treatment of disease and injuries of the mouth – Schooling lasts 54 months to 72 months after dental school
- Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology – Diseases of the mouth, teeth and surrounding regions – Schooling lasts 37 months after dental school
- Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology – X-rays and other forms of imaging used for diagnosis and management of oral diseases and disorders – Schooling lasts 30 months after dental school
- Dental Public Health – Preventing dental disease through organized community efforts – Schooling lasts 15 months after dental school