Dentistry is an important part of overall health and wellness and the employment opportunities within the dental profession are increasing in demand on a worldwide scale. The dentist is a primary oral health physician and the very attractive compensation packages offered, including both the dentist salary and other related benefits, appropriately reflects the amount dedication and advanced study which is required to become a dentist as well as the overall importance of oral health in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
This infographic gives a visual representation of some of the data related to dentist salary levels, careers, and programs.
History of the Profession
Evidence of treatment for disorders relating to the teeth and gums has been discovered as far back as 7000 BC in the western region of South Asia, which now includes the geographic areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northwest India. While this early evidence only points to basic practices, such as drilling out the affected teeth, it does appear that these practices were performed on a consistent enough frequency to have been deemed an effective treatment methodology at the time.
We find the first instructional text reference around the year 1530 AD, written in the English language, with the widespread practice of what evolved to become modern dentistry taking form around the middle of the 17th century. Around this time, a French physician is credited with the development of many practices which formed modern dental medicine, including the use of fillings as well as the production of research which indicated that acids and sugars had a noted effect on dental decay.
Roles and Responsibilities
By far the largest employer of licensed dentists within the United States are private practices. Within the private practice, the dentist generally examines a number of patients during routine work days and may diagnose and provide treatment for a wide range of problems relating to oral health. The most common procedures are the filling of cavities, or caries, root canals, the treatment of gum disease and associated problems, and those qualified practitioners may practice oral surgery, which commonly involves removing or replacing problematic areas of the mouth such as teeth or gum tissue.
In other employment settings, duties may differ from those listed above. For example, some dentists practice within hospitals or other community and private health agencies and may be employed to treat specific oral problems, such as loss of teeth from trauma. Additionally, there are academic positions available to qualified candidates. These may range from research positions sponsored by various professional organizations, such as the American Dental Association, to tenured teaching positions at dental schools and universities.
Within private practices and some other settings, dentists generally work with a support team of dental hygienists, dental laboratory technicians, dental assistants, and medical office receptionists. These support team members assist with clerical and administrative duties associated with running the practice, but also routine procedures carried out during examinations, such as imaging and cleaning of the teeth and gums. This allows the dentist to provide a higher level of care to patients who are in need of advanced treatment of the teeth and gums.
The American Dental Association currently recognizes nine different specialties;
- Endodontics: This area focuses on treatment of diseases and problems specifically with the pulp within the tooth, dental nerves, and other related tissues.
- Public Health Dentistry: As the title implies, this specialty relates to general public health outreach through the development of policies and research.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: Includes the research and study of various issues and diseases which originate orally.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery: Practicing oral and maxillofacial surgeons are able to treat a wide range of conditions and issues relating to the teeth, jaw, and neck.
- Periodontics: This specialization focuses on treatment for conditions and issues which affect the gingival tissues, such as various forms of gum disease.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology: A specialization which involves the study of various imaging techniques used in oral health treatment, this is the most recent addition to the ADA’s list of specialities.
- Pediatric Dentistry: Provides general, routine oral care to patients from birth through young adulthood.
- Prosthodontics: This specialization uses modern dental devices such as implants and bridges to replace missing or damaged teeth.
- Orthodontics: This specialization provides treatment for a wide range of structural or developmental abnormalities in the teeth, and is most commonly associated with the “straightening” of teeth through the use of braces.
- General Dentistry: This provider offers a wide range of diagnostics and treatments relating to general oral care.
Residencies are expected for all of the listed specializations except general dentistry, however, most dental schools will advise a graduate to apply for a residency to gain practical skills before entering private practice.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the need for dental school graduates is increasing. As more and more insurance companies are seeing the holistic benefits of proper oral care, preventative dentistry, especially for children, is becoming more widespread and increasing the number of opportunities available for dentists in many communities.
The research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also indicates that there are two primary factors driving the increased demand for dentists, which is expected to grow by 21% through the year 2018. First, due to advances in modern dental care and oral hygiene awareness which began around the middle of the 20th century, we are seeing an extension of the amount of time during which people are retaining their natural teeth. In years past, improper oral hygiene may have led to the extraction of damaged teeth, perhaps resulting in dentures and a decreased need for ongoing regular dental care. However, the longer retention of natural teeth increases the demand for regular oral care and treatment.
Additionally, the aging of the generation commonly referred to as the “Baby Boomer” generation will mean that a larger percentage of the U.S. population will need advanced treatment of diseases and other problems than at any point in modern history. Both of these factors lead to the fact that that demand for dentists is now exceeding the number of graduates coming out of the nation’s dental programs. This is leading to an increased number of employment opportunities and higher dentist salary levels in some areas of the country.
Education and Training
In order to become a dentist, students must first complete at least two years of pre-requisite undergraduate level college courses during a four-year baccalaureate program before applying to one of the country’s 58 dental schools. The prerequisites will vary from one school to another, but include areas of emphasis such as biology, physics, and general and organic chemistry. On average, candidates who apply to dental programs submit 10 applications in order to maximize the chances of acceptance.
Dental school students do require high scores on the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) because competition for admission into dental schools is fairly competitive. In the United States, the American Dental Association oversees dental school accreditation, via the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental school programs typically last four years and begin with classroom study followed by clinical rotations and training with real patients.
Course work in dental programs again varies depending on the institution, but will most often cover such topics as the history of dentistry, general dentistry practices, field experience, public health, research and evidence-based care, business issues and practice planning, ethics, and interpersonal communication.
Dentist Salary Levels
The Unites States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a report called the Occupational Employment Statistics Handbook, showing the salaries that dentists have made during the reporting year. In 2010, the average salary a General Dentistry specialist earned was around $141,000. Self-employed dentists tend to make more, and income also increases with specific specialties, years in practice, and the amount of hours worked.
Salaries in the bottom 10% of the dental profession averaged around $71,000, while earners in the top 10% of the profession saw a median of just over $166,000. As noted above, area of practice and speciality can have a drastic impact on earnings, with oral and maxillofacial surgeons and orthodontists seeing the highest earnings. In the field of general dentistry, again the median level was reported as just over $141,000 for reference.
For candidates interested in doctoral level study in the health care industry with a range of available specialties and many opportunities for purely academic and research roles, dentistry can be a viable course of study. The training is considered very rigorous, as with any post-graduate educational opportunities in health care, however, the recent surveys of dentist salary and compensation packages indicates very attractive income levels for those willing to undertake the stringent criteria for admission requirements to one of the nation’s dental programs.
The following video provides a brief overview of the dentistry profession as well as general duties.