Qualifications for a dentist

Dentists are doctors who, after earning a bachelor's degree, typically undergo four years of dental school to earn either a doctor of dental medicine (D.M.D.) or a doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.) degree. Those dentists who want to practice one of nine dental specialties must complete two to four extra years of training.

To be licensed, these professionals must pass national written tests and a state or regional clinical licensing exam. The American Dental Association (ADA) is a professional organization that sponsors and promotes continuing education and serves as an advocate for federal and state legislation.

Check to see if your dentist is licensed!

Practitioners do a lot more than treat toothaches. They typically head a team comprised of dental assistants, hygienists, technicians and office staff. They stress preventive care for both children and adults. Many run a general dentistry practice that provides a variety of services for its patients, from filling cavities and removing wisdom teeth to cosmetic procedures typically not covered by insurance, such as placing dental veneers, thin shells that go over teeth to cover chips stains or gaps.

MORE: What's the cost of Lumineers?

Finding a good dentist who you trust remains vital to maintaining proper oral health. Since approaches to care differ, don't hesitate to to seek a second opinion from another dentist if you don't feel comfortable with a recommended treatment, either.

Video: Dental tips

Why visit a dentist?

According to the American Dental Association, Americans lose an estimated 164 million work hours annually due to oral disease. Children and adults see a general dentist for preventive and restorative care, such as cleanings, periodic X-rays, fillings, the treatment of dental injuries, teeth whitening, sealants and fluoride, crowns and root canals. These practitioners also can offer advice on treating medical conditions such as sleep apnea.

The ADA recognizes nine specialties of dentistry. If you're looking for advice on preventing dental problems, you might consult a community dental public health specialist. If you need a difficult root-canal therapy, you might see an endodontist, who will remove the nerves and blood supply from the affected tooth. For nonstandard imaging of the head and neck, you would see an oral and maxillofacial radiologist.

An oral pathologist specializes in diseases of the mouth, such as cancer or ulcers. Children, teens and adults who want to straighten their teeth with braces or other appliances visit an orthodontist. Many families use a pediatric dentist, who focuses on dentistry for children and those with special needs.

If you require surgery on your mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck or head, you might call on the services of an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who has the necessary training to repair conditions like a cleft lip or cleft palate. These surgeons also perform tooth extractions. Periodontists treat problems with the gums and with the bone that supports the teeth. Prosthodontists replace missing teeth with dentures or other permanent fixes like bridges and crowns.

5 tips for finding a dentist

If you haven't visited a dentist in awhile or have moved to a new city, you might not know how to find the most qualified dentist who best fits your needs. Follow these steps:

1. Check your plan. If you have dental insurance, your search for a new dental practice starts with the list of providers under your plan and in your network.

2. Consult Angie's List for dentist reviews. To qualify your list of dental care professionals in your area, check current licensing and review member recommendations, visit angieslist.com.

3. Do your research. If you're looking for treatment of a particular oral ailment, consult Healthcare Blue Book, a free online guide that lists fair prices for healthcare services. The fair price is what a health service provider typically allows from insurance companies as full payment, which is substantially less than the billed amount.

4. Ask the right questions. When you call a practice, you should verify that the dentist participates in your insurance plan and learn about the financial policies before having any major work done. Comparison shopping is easy to do if you check estimated prices for common services, such as cleaning, X-rays or fillings. You also will want to know how the practice handles emergencies outside of regular business hours and its policy regarding missed appointments. Some prospective patients seek out detailed information on the dentist's training and approach to preventive dentistry. You might also want to ask how long newcomers must wait for a nonemergency appointment.

5. Visit the office. A dental practice should not object to visits from a potential patient, so long as your visit falls at a convenient time. This is your opportunity to check whether the office is orderly. The treatment area should look clean. Carpeted walkways and waiting areas should appear free of debris, and the office should offer accessibility for disabled patients. You will also see firsthand how friendly and helpful the dental staff is, and whether they seem professional.

Understanding gum disease

Some gum conditions, such as a mild from of gingivitis, can be treated by a dentist and by practicing good oral hygiene at home. However, more severe cases of gum inflammation, or periodontitis, whichi is an infection that damages the soft tissue and destroys the bone that supports your teeth, should be seen by a periodontist.

For more information about gum specialists, read Angie's List Guide to Periodontists.


Healthy teeth, gums and a dazzing smile aren't the only reasons some people need to see a dentist. Pain or a clicking sound in our jaw could mean you have a jawbone joint disorder known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). For more information, read Angie's List Guide to TMJ.

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