A specialist dentist is a general dentist who, as a minimum, has also completed a full-time postgraduate degree in their chosen specialty. The average postgraduate degree takes a minimum of three years and also involves a research component. This means a specialist dentist is an expert in their field.
An oral and maxillofacial surgeon will also hold a medical degree and have full registration as a medical practitioner in Australia. In all, the average duration of oral and maxillofacial surgery postgraduate training is about nine to 10 years after the basic dental degree.
General dentists are the right professionals to see for regular checkups, general dental treatment, repairing damaged and decayed teeth, caring for gums and replacing lost teeth. Although a general dentist is highly trained to look after your dental health needs, they do not receive significant training in – for instance – orthodontics, or oral and maxillofacial surgery.
When it comes to orthodontic treatment, there are some general dentists who may offer “cost-effective” treatment, treatment that supposedly avoids braces, or “fast” treatment. These general dentists might have taken a short course in orthodontics that lasts only a day or two. It is not possible for a general dentist to learn in a couple of days what a specialist orthodontist has mastered after three years of fulltime study.
Only a specialist orthodontist can give you an accurate and informed opinion on the best orthodontic options for your teeth and deal with any difficult issues and unexpected outcomes to help you achieve the smile you desire and a good bite.
The same can be said for the other specialty fields in dentistry. For example, you may be trying to save money by seeing a general dentist for an implant, but you might also be risking an unacceptable result that won’t last without further and more expensive treatment. If the result is not satisfactory, you may then be referred to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon or to a periodontist who specialises in implant treatment. This follow-up treatment could set you back – in terms of your dental health and your hip pocket!
Be aware that general dentists may have a “special interest” in a particular field of dentistry but this does not make them a dental specialist. You should always see a specialist if you are unsure that your usual dentist can deliver the best possible result. General dentists should also be aware of their own limitations and refer you to see a specialist when your presenting problem is beyond their own area of expertise. But bear in mind that, in dentistry, you don’t need a referral to see a specialist.