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The difference between the orthodontist and dentist who does orthodontics.

Posted on November 2, 2016

It is getting harder to tell the difference between an orthodontist and a dentist who does orthodontics. What is an orthodontist? What makes him different than a dentist who does orthodontics? Does it really matter?

An orthodontist is a licensed dentist who, after graduating from dental school, returns to a university or medical center accredited by the American Dental Association for two to three years of comprehensive training in the correction of every type of malocclusion (bad smiles and bites). Getting into an orthodontic specialty program is very competitive. Students who are accepted into post-graduate residencies have usually graduated at the top of their dental school class. Orthodontic residents devote at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 24 to 36 months learning to diagnose and treat everything from a little space that can be fixed with a simple retainer to the most difficult underbite that requires 3 to 4 years of treatment in addition to jaw surgery. That amounts to 4,000 to 6,000 additional hours of intense, supervised training after dental school.

Orthodontists also received post-graduate level courses in genetics, statistics, growth and development, orthodontic theory, biomechanics, research techniques, surgical orthodontics, and cleft palate just to name a few.

When a dental student passes his boards, he becomes legally licensed to provide all dental procedures regardless of his training or experience. They can clean teeth, fill cavities, make crowns, bridges, and dentures, do simple root canals, and perform simple extractions. After graduation, there are continuing education courses available that allow dentists to further their education and expand the range of services they offer in their practices. Some of these are offered at universities, but most are for-profit courses offered by vendors on the weekends in hotels or conference centers. Unlike competitive university specialty programs, the only requirement for these courses is payment of the enrollment fees. Whereas university based specialty programs give residents two to three years of invaluable hands-on clinical experience, weekend courses may not even allow the doctor to perform a single procedure on a real patient before offering it in his own practice. Additionally, weekend courses have no way of overseeing the progression of treatment or helping out the inexperienced doctor should something go wrong since the seminar instructor is long gone.

While a few for-profit orthodontic continuing education courses may take place on multiple weekends during a one or two year span, in my mind it would be difficult for them to duplicate the experience that an orthodontic resident receives in 4,000 to 6,000 hours of full-time residency. Most weekend orthodontic training courses offer a two-day schedule that spends more time on marketing and promotion than it does on diagnosis and treatment planning. Is it plausible that a general dentist can produce the same results as a specialist after a single two-day course?  Furthermore, does is make sense that they can do it in a shorter time and for less money? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Even though your primary care physician can legally perform surgery on your heart, give you a nose job, or treat you for psychiatric problems, wouldn’t you seek the skills of a specialist if you needed these services? Your smile and bite are just as important. Before you let anyone straighten your teeth, ask them specifically if they are a specialist (an orthodontist) and how many years of additional training they had to become licensed as a specialist. You only have one smile. Shouldn’t you put it into the hands of a qualified orthodontist?

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