Known to most just as their ‘dentist’ – a “general dentist” is primarily concerned with the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of oral disease. This includes but is not limited to cavities (caries), cracked or broken teeth, gum disease and the like. Most general dentists also maintain a strong focus on preventive dentistry – such as frequent teeth cleanings, preventive exams and diagnostic radiographs (X-rays).
Within the broad scope of general dentistry there are those who choose to limit their practice to certain age groups or fields of dentistry. For example, some may choose to call theirs a “family practice” while others may define themselves as a “cosmetic practice”. These are not recognized specialties but rather an indication the focus of the practice. This can actually prove to be quite useful to a potential patient, as it does provide a way to differentiate between the endless list of D.D.S.’s in the yellow pages and find the right fit for them.
Roles and Responsibilities
Regardless of the specific focus of a general practice, the day-to-day clinical duties of any general dentist will include some of the following tasks:
- Comprehensive oral evaluation
- Oral cancer risk assessment
- Diagnostic radiographs (X-rays)
- Caries (cavity) detection, prevention and treatment
- Repair/replacement of broken or missing teeth
- Emergency treatment
- Root canals
- Tooth extraction
- Prescription and delivery of anesthetics/analgesics/medicaments
- Gum disease detection, prevention and treatment
- Preventive and therapeutic cleanings
- Orthodontic procedures
- Cosmetic dentistry
- Teeth whitening
This is far from an exhaustive list, but it provides somewhat of a job description of the clinical duties performed by a general dentist. There is also an almost endless list of non-clinical tasks to be done and roles to be performed. These include administrative tasks such as note writing, liaising with dental specialists about their patients, various duties involved with employing staff and the interaction with other dental team members such as dental assistants and hygienists.
What schooling is required to become a general dentist?
In the UK, one must undertake a dental undergraduate degree in Dentistry. There are 18 dental schools to choose from throughout he UK. The admittance criteria are generally very high due to the popularity of the course. Top results in A-level exams are amongst the primary requirements. Here is a useful resource for those wanting more information.
In the US, the average schooling to become a dentist is somewhere between 8-10 years. Typically, this would require 4 years to earn a bachelors degree. While it is not necessary to graduate with a major in one of the sciences (i.e. biology, chemistry, physiology, psychology, etc), it is advisable because all dental schools have a strict, pre-determined minimum number of science units required by an applicant to even be considered for their dental program (it may be minimum but it is not minimal). As a result, most dentists go into dental school with a Bachelor of Science degree.
After completing the required undergraduate degree, a potential dental student must then take a dental school specific test known as the DAT (Dental Aptitude Test), which is to dental school, what the MCAT is to medical school; a very difficult entrance exam that dental universities use to help filter potential candidates.
Once accepted, a dental student can expect to pay between $150,000 and $350,000 for the right to add DDS or DMD to the end of their name (not counting the compound interest over the next 20-30 years of course). Also, its worth noting that in most cases this figure does not cover food or other necessary cost of living expenses for which many a dental student may take out additional loans to cover. As you can see, the initial investment for earning a dental degree quickly adds up. For this and other complicated economic reasons, it is no wonder why fees for general dental services have risen appreciably in the past decade or two.
How much does a general dentist make?
According to the US Department of Labor (Bureau of Labor Statistics division), the mean income for a general dentist in 2010 was $146, 920. Most dentists have a starting salary between $90,000-$100,00. It isn’t until they buy or build their own practice that the salary gets up to the mean salary listed above. In fact, while not typical, there are some general dentist who earn $250k, $500k or even $1 million per year! (Note: “results may vary and past results not necessarily indicative of future earnings”, as the lawyers would say). Information on UK dental earnings can be found here.
Unfortunately, a dentists’ earning power is not usually a reflection of how “good” of a dentist they are. Most often it is heavily influenced by local economic factors as well as the particular dentists’ reputation and business acumen. Thus, monetary success alone is not always the best way to gauge the “quality” of a dentist (i.e. they may be the best dentist in the world but horrible at business or marketing). After all, dental schools exist to create dentists not businessmen.
When deciding on the general dentist that is right for you, it is important to fulfill your due diligence and try to take all factors into account. The most “successful” dentist may not always turn out to be the “best” dentist for you. Nor is the cheapest dentist always the best value. Don’t be afraid to “shop” for the right fit. It is also important to know that you don’t have to let your insurance company choose for you! Be a discerning consumer and find the dentist that is right for you!
Who needs a general dentist?
The truth is, everyone does, even people with no teeth need to chew (you’ve heard of dentures haven’t you?). Everyone is at risk of oral diseases such as gum infections and even oral cancer.
In the old days people only went to the dentist at “tooth-hurty”…that is to say; you didn’t go to the dentist unless it hurt (couldn’t resist throwing in this classic dental joke). Seriously though, this is the primary reason dentistry developed a bad reputation over the years. It is also why most of our parents and grandparents had to wear dentures. With modern dental techniques and technologies as well as a prevention-based approach – as opposed to emergency-based – these days one can certainly avoid a lot of headaches…or shall we say toothaches.
The bottom line is this…we now know that there are proven links between oral health and overall health. As a result, the general dentist is essential to total body health; it could be said that they are our first line of defense. Truly, the role of the general dentist has never been more important!
Don’t wait until it hurts! Find the general dentist that is right for you and visit them regularly!