Dentists in nearly all parts of the world are doctors, insofar as they have earned doctorate-level degrees. In many places, the phrase “doctor” seems to attach most naturally to those who are physicians, surgeons, or otherwise dedicated to care of the human body. Dentists do not usually fall within this group, but their title derives from their training — not their profession.
Origins of the Term “Doctor”
Although most commonly associated with medicine, the word “doctor” actually derives from the Latin word for “teach,” doceo. Anyone considered an expert in a specific field, be it science or art history, can be styled “Dr.” provided he or she has undergone the requisite training. Most of the time, any sort of doctorate-level degree gives rise to the title, and dentists are no exception.
Dental school is almost always the biggest requirement to becoming a practitioner. Different countries have different requirements, but most programs involve several years of post-graduate study culminating in either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) degree. Recipients of these degrees are both personally and professionally known as “Dr.”
Exceptions in the United Kingdom
Great Britain is one of the only countries in the world to not automatically confer trained dentists with the “doctor” title. This primarily owes to the nuances of the British education system. Dentists in this system typically earn only a bachelor’s of dental surgery, abbreviated BDS, BChD, or BDent.
The “doctor” title is sometimes used out of respect in Great Britain, or as a courtesy title. Some dentists also hold themselves out as doctors as a means of drawing a parallel to the systems in most other parts of the world, though this has caused some controversy.
Specialties and Practice Areas
Outside of the UK, a dentist is typically considered a doctor no matter his or her specialty. General or “family practice” dentists are usually the most common. These professionals perform basic oral exams, repair cavities, and help keep teeth and gums healthy. Most dental school graduates are eligible to become general practitioners right away.
Specialties like oral surgery or orthodontia typically require additional schooling and in-field training. So long as practitioner has the basic DDS or DDM degree, however, he or she is still simply called “doctor.”
In some cases, dentists carry more than one doctorate-level degree. This is often the case with a dentist who has also attended medical school, or a research dentist who has gone on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, degree. This sort of advanced training often helps practitioners to do better work, but it does not impact their titles. A doctor is a doctor after the first degree.
Like most medical doctors, dentists are typically able to write and fill prescriptions, as well as make diagnoses and provide primary care. These powers set them apart from dental assistants and hygienists, professionals who act more as assistants than doctors. In many practices, assistants do much of the hands-on work with patients, including initial exams, preparation of x-rays, and basic cleanings. The doctor will examine all findings, however, and is usually responsible for making a final determination when it comes to a patient’s oral health.