What Does a Dentist Do? (With Job Duties and Requirements)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 1, 2023

Published January 3, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Dentists are medical professionals that offer preventative dentistry and emergency treatment services. They specialize in oral care, treating problems with patients' teeth, gums, and other parts of the mouth. Understanding the answer to, "What does a dentist do?" can help you determine how to obtain the skills and education to work in this role. In this article, we explain what dentists do, explore useful skills for these professionals, and review the steps you can take to pursue a role in the field.

What does a dentist do?

You may be interested in learning the answer to, "What does a dentist do?". Dentists work as a doctor in dental medicine. They possess a Doctorate of Dental Surgery or a Doctorate of Dental Medicine degree. These oral health professionals have responsibilities that are categorized into three sections, including:

Consultative

Dentists review patient history and medical information before a consultation. During the meeting, the dentist creates a preventative treatment plan based on patient needs. Dentists usually order x-rays and complete a physical assessment of patients' oral health. They use this information to set a schedule for routine check-ups, regular cleanings, and necessary hygienic procedures.

Preventative

Dentists plan preventative work, including cleanings and chemical applications such as sealants. This type of dentistry involves diagnosing issues through various tests, such as x-rays or panoramic scans. The dentist assesses oral development, including bite quality, mouth overcrowding, and oral changes such as new wisdom teeth. They discuss best practices for oral hygiene with the patient and indicate any necessary treatments.

Treatment

Dental professionals provide both planned and emergency oral health treatment. There's urgent care dentistry to manage dental pain, where the dentist may prescribe antibiotics or pain management medication. In extreme situations, the dentist can provide emergency surgery by performing extractions or root canals. The most common treatment involves the dentist identifying issues, developing a plan, and scheduling the procedures. Dentists receive training in all types of procedures and can administer anaesthesia and perform surgical procedures. Some of the most common dental procedures include:

  • Cleanings: This process involves a physical exam of the mouth followed by removing plaque and tartar using a variety of tools.

  • Fillings: This procedure requires the dentist to freeze the site, remove decay, and fill the cavity using the appropriate material.

  • Crowns: This involves the dentist placing a permanent cap on damaged or weak teeth. The crown protects the tooth from further damage and prevents nerve pain.

  • Veneers: The veneer procedure involves the dentist placing a thin shell and adhering it to the tooth surface. This can prevent acid wear and dental discolouration.

  • Extractions: Dentists perform tooth extractions under general or local anaesthesia. The dentist removes the tooth, cleans the area, and stitches the site if necessary.

  • Root canal: In this procedure, dentists freeze the area and drill into the root to address nerve pain or tooth damage. The dentist places medication at the base of the filling adhesive in the canal before sealing the area with a filling, followed by a crown.

Read more: How Long Is Dental School and What Are the Requirements?

Important skills for dentists

Dentists require versatile knowledge and skills which they gain through dental training. To succeed in becoming a dentist, it helps to have the following aptitudes:

Strong memory

Dentists undergo years of training to learn about a broad set of scientific topics before specializing in dentistry. Much of the education involves both rote and functional memorization. Rote memory is when you repeat something until you memorize it. You can use this for learning anatomy, as dentists learn the Latin names of every tooth. Functional memory involves applying the information you learned to current situations, such as remembering how to perform a certain filling technique.

Critical thinking

Dentists problem solve regularly by completing assessments, performing tests, and communicating with patients. They determine the source of an issue, such as pain or bleeding, then create a solution that's safe for the patient. Critical thinking is applied to the dentist's research, planning, and decision-making.

Read more: What Does a Dental Assistant Do? (With Duties and FAQs)

Communication

Dentists have advanced oral health knowledge and communicate that information to patients clearly. They relay treatment needs and costs to patients, then answer questions. As dental anxiety is common, it's important that dentists have strong communication skills and an effective bedside manner.

Manual dexterity

Performing dental procedures requires well-developed fine motor function. Dentists manoeuvre in tight areas with a very small margin of error. A steady hand and ongoing practise helps dental professionals develop this important skill.

Technical aptitude

Dentists work with a wide variety of technologies such as lasers, ultraviolet light devices, drills, and x-ray machinery. While dentistry school trains dentists on how to use these devices, new technology develops regularly. Being comfortable handling technology and adapting to new devices can help dentists remain professionally competitive.

Read more: How to Become a Dentist Assistant in 4 Simple Steps

How to become a dentist

Here's a list of steps you can follow to become a dentist:

1. Acquire the prerequisite education

To pursue dental school, the first step is acquiring the necessary prerequisite education. While the exact requirements vary based on the institution, the standard is a minimum of two pre-dental years of university. This equates to 60 credits that you earn in four semesters. Most dental schools require credits in the following fields:

  • General and organic chemistry

  • Biology and microbiology

  • English

  • Statistics and mathematics

  • Biochemistry

  • Physiology and anatomy

Read more: 10 Dental Careers (With Salaries and Primary Duties)

2. Complete the Dental Aptitude Test

As approved institutions can only offer the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), applicants usually take the aptitude test at the school they hope to attend. The Canadian Dental Association (CDA) administers the scores through participating institutions. This test is a multiple-choice exam performed on a computer that assesses the following:

  • Biology knowledge

  • Chemistry knowledge

  • Perceptual ability

  • Quantitative reasoning

  • Reading comprehension

3. Apply to dental school

Dental schools use your grade point average and DAT score to determine if you are eligible for the program. To be a qualified dentist, you require a degree from an accredited university. Canada has 10 universities that offer dental degrees, including:

  • University of British Columbia

  • University of Alberta

  • University of Saskatchewan

  • University of Manitoba

  • University of Toronto

  • University of Western Ontario

  • Universite de Montreal

  • McGill University

  • Universite Laval

  • Dalhousie University

Finding placement in a dental program can be competitive, so it helps to pursue extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Candidates with higher test scores and grade point averages are more likely to gain acceptance. By applying to multiple schools, you can improve the likelihood of being accepted to a dental program.

4. Complete your dental education

The National Dental Examining Board of Canada (NDEB) administers a series of tests once you complete dental school. These exams prove that you gained the necessary knowledge and skills during dental school. The first test is the Assessment of Fundamental Knowledge (AFK). It covers dental physiology, biochemistry, and other essential subjects. The Assessment of Clinical Judgement (ACJ) and the Assessment of Clinical Skills (ACS) determine your practical abilities. These exams use different scenarios and assess your ability to diagnose and treat patients. While the first test determines your knowledge, these tests prove your technical abilities.

5. Register with the Dentistry College

Dentists register with the College of Dentistry in the province where they plan to practice. Each territory and province has its own governing agency that offers dental licenses to qualified professionals. Dental colleges require a dental degree with a minimum of four years' study, your NDEB certificate, and Canadian citizenship or permanent residency.

5. Begin working as a dentist

Once you obtain registration and insurance to practise dentistry in your province of choice, you can either work independently or join a business. Many dentists begin their careers by gaining employment with an established practice. Senior dentists can offer training and experience to new dentists to help you build confidence and improve your technique. Over time, you can build a clientele and curate a reputation as a skilled dentist. The national average salary for a dentist is $169,483 per year.

6. Update insurance and registration regularly

Dentists require active liability insurance at all times to practice legally. The policy type is errors and omissions insurance, and it protects the dental office and the dentist against legal action and malpractice suits. Provincial dental colleges also require dentists to report any changes to their practice immediately. This includes the dentist's official address and professional standing.

7. Specialize your skills

Dentists can pursue a specialization to develop professionally while still practising dentistry. Specializing involves focusing your practice based on your skills and interests. For instance, if you work well with children, you can pursue a pediatric specialization. There are a number of specializations to choose from, including:

  • Dental public health

  • Pediatric dentistry

  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics

  • Endodontics

  • Periodontics

  • Prosthodontics

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery

  • Oral medicine and pathology

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