Is there a difference between a general dentist who provides orthodontic treatment versus an orthodontist?
September 21st, 2017
The simple and quick answer is YES. And why is this important? We will explain.
After the four years of dental school where a dental student receives very limited training and experience in orthodontics, an orthodontist receives 2-3 years of additional training in orthodontics (braces and Invisalign) only during their residency at a university. Orthodontists like Dr. Altherr also were required to do research for a Master’s degree while also receiving usually over 5,000 hours of true, hands-on clinical training and experience to expose them to every type of potential problem involving one’s bite and their smile. University training is important since many laypeople can be confused by some general dentists who advertise that they have received certification in this or that type of orthodontic treatment. Please keep in mind that the for-profit orthodontic courses that most general dentists attend are roughly 8 hours per day over the course of a 2-3 day weekend. Let’s compare the time involved for one’s training in orthodontics: 16-24 hours or over 5,000 hours; no contest, we agree.
Why does this matter or why is it important? It really is like seeing your family physician for heart surgery. In a severe emergency, if you and your family doc were on an island, could he or she try to treat some sort of heart issue? Possibly, but in a real world, day-in and day-out basis, where you and they are not on an island, should they? No. They simply don’t have the experience and training to successfully perform the specialty procedure(s) with any degree of predictability, and in a timely manner. Another analogy to describe this difference for your home- one usually would not hire an electrician to unclog a toilet? Usually a plumber would be hired who is specifically trained and experienced to deal with plumbing problems.
In a 2-3 year orthodontics residency after the 4 years of dental school, a resident is usually expected to start and finish around 50 patients with various problems so that they can get hands-on experience in a controlled clinical setting. After graduating from dental school, there are continuing education (CE) courses available which allow dentists to further their education and expand the range of services that they can provide to their patients. All practicing dentists and dental specialists are required to obtain a minimal amount of CE per year. Some of these CE courses are provided at universities, but most are for-profit courses done on weekends in hotels where the only requirement is attendance and payment of the enrollment fee. These weekend courses may not even allow the general dentist to perform a single orthodontic procedure on a real patient before trying to perform such on an actual patient. Furthermore, weekend courses have no way of evaluating how orthodontic treatment progresses over time and the weekend instructor is not in the general dentist’s office to help and provide guidance afterwards.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and just because one can do something, doesn’t mean that they should. Before you let any dental provider treat you orthodontically (braces or Invisalign), do your research online or ask around town. If you are in your dental provider’s office, specifically ask them if they are an orthodontic specialist, where they did their orthodontic residency and if they ever had braces as a teem, who provided their orthodontic treatment- their family dentist or an orthodontist? Most would answer, their orthodontist.
Note from the Author: Dr. Edward R. Altherr, is a board-certified orthodontist who is in the private practice of orthodontics in Apex, NC. He was trained and had taught orthodontics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Altherr has over 15 years of specialty orthodontic practice and 2-3 years of general dental practice. This blog is for informational purposes only, and is provided to help you understand currently accepted orthodontic problems and concepts.