​What Is The Difference Between a GP Dentist & a Specialty Dentist?

What's the Difference between a gp dentist and a specialty dentist?

Dentists are healthcare providers who take care of patients' oral health. However, there are general dentists and specialists within the practice of dentistry. While a general dentist and a specialist dentist are both dentists, how they practice and what treatments each provides are different. Let's look at the difference between a GP dentist and a specialist.

General dentists diagnose and treat patients' oral health, including regular X-rays and exams of teeth, gums and mouth.

What Is Considered General Dentistry?

GP (General Practitioner) dentists are patients' primary dentists and provide general dentistry care. General dentistry is what most people probably think of when they imagine going to the dentist. General dentists diagnose and treat patients' oral health, including regular X-rays and exams of patients' teeth, gums, and mouth.[1]

The general dentist will also handle restorative and preventative care. For example, a general dentist will provide fillings and other restorative care like crowns and bridges for tooth decay. A general dentist can often perform root canals, extractions, and cosmetic procedures. In addition, the clinical team at the general dentist's office will do your cleanings, screen you for oral cancer, address your gum health, and manage your preventative education.[2]

Specialist dentists provide treatments specific to an area of study, leaving the regular dental care to the patients' primary general dentist.

By contrast, a specialist dentist has general dentistry training but then has additional training in a specific area of dentistry. A specialist dentist provides treatments that are specific to that area of study, leaving the regular dental care to the patient's primary care dentists. [3]

What Do General Dentists and Specialty Dentists Have in Common?

After finishing their undergraduate degrees, general and specialty dentists go to dental school for four years. There are 70 accredited dental schools in the US,[4] which offer either a Doctor Medicinae Dentariae (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). The first two years focus on classes in the biological sciences, and the last two are clinically focused, including working with actual patients. [5]

What Are the Differences Between General Dentists and Specialists?

Once dental students graduate, they have a choice. They can take state exams to get their license for practicing general dentistry or they can specialize. If graduates choose to go into practice right away, they are general dentists.

However, some graduates want to specialize in a specific area of dentistry, which requires additional training. This training is typically a residency that takes between 12 and 24 months to complete. The exception is oral and maxillofacial surgery, which requires up to six additional years. [6]

Another significant difference between general and specialty dentistry is the types of procedures the clinician regularly performs. All specialists can do what a general dentist can, like a cleaning or a filling. However, specialists limit their regular procedures to those that fall within their area of specialization. [7]

For example, suppose an orthodontist sees that the patient has a cavity. Instead of filling it, the orthodontist will refer the patient to their general dentist to get the filling and then make a future appointment to initiate orthodontic treatment.

What Are The 12 Dental Specialties?

The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes 12 dental specialties: [8]

· Dental anesthesiology

· Dental public health

· Endodontics

· Oral and maxillofacial pathology

· Oral and maxillofacial radiology

· Oral and maxillofacial surgery

· Oral medicine

· Orofacial pain

· Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics

· Pediatric dentistry

· Periodontics

· Prosthodontics

What Is a Specialized Dentist Called?

Both general and specialty dentists are dentists, but we call them different things. For example, references to a specialty dentist reflect their specialty type. Therefore, a dentist specializing in oral and maxillofacial surgery is called an oral surgeon, and one specializing in orthodontics is an orthodontist. By contrast, a general dentist is usually referred to as a dentist or sometimes by other dental professionals as a GP.

Many specialist dentists enjoy higher annual earnings than general dentists depending on their specialty and where they live.

Why Do Dentists Specialize?

There are a few reasons a dentist might choose to specialize. Maybe they have had exposure to an interesting area of dentistry in dental school that drives the decision. Perhaps the dentist always knew they wanted to specialize in a specific type of treatment or work with a particular segment of the patient population. In other cases, the dentist has someone in their life who they want to follow in the specialty or they had an experience with a specialist that inspired them to go into that area of dentistry. [9]

Some dentists might specialize for financial reasons. Many specialists enjoy higher annual earnings than general dentists. For example, a general dentist makes around $163,000 [10] per year, but a specialist makes between $200,000 and $324,000 or more, depending upon their specialty and where they live. [11]

How Do You Know if You Should Become a Specialist?

If you aren't sure whether you want to practice right away or go for a specialty, there are some questions that you can ask yourself that can help you determine your path. For example, ask yourself the following: [12]

  • Do you feel a call to public service? A public health dentist will often develop new oral health policies that improve the dental health of specific populations, may study trends in different demographic groups, and develop and provide dental programs to at-risk communities.

  • Is surgery something you have always wanted to do? Oral and maxillofacial surgeons handle oral surgery that general dentists don't. They also reconstruct the smile and bite following trauma for patients. They can also administer general anesthesia.

  • Want to work with kids? Pediatric dentistry studies child psychology and pharmacology and focuses on care for children. Orthodontists also often work with kids between the ages of 8 and 14 to improve their teeth alignment, which could be another option for you.

  • Are you passionate about health and wellness? If helping people live longer, healthier lives sounds like something you would like, periodontics, which is the study of structures that support the teeth, might be a good fit for you. Periodontists help patients maintain good oral hygiene and mind patients' gum health.

  • Do you want to make more money? Specialists make more money than general dentists, except for public health dentists. Oral surgeons often make more than double what a general dentist does. Therefore, if you like earning a high income, specialty practice can be an excellent path for you.

How Should You Choose a Residency?

If you decide to specialize, your next step is choosing a residency. There are a few things to consider: [13]

  • How much does it cost? Affordability is usually a factor in this decision, especially after dental school and undergraduate bills have piled up over the past few years.

  • How much does it pay? There are paid residencies too. Some pay more than others, so that will likely come into the decision if you pursue one of these options.

  • How long will it take? Most programs are around two years, but some are less and some, like oral surgery, are much longer. After eight years of school, the timing could be a critical part of the decision.

  • What degree or certificate do you earn? Residency programs offer differing academic credentials. Is what they offer what you want?

  • What will your life be like? Some are rigorous training programs, while other residencies are more like mentoring relationships. What environment do you want for this phase of your life?

PDS supports integrated specialties in dental practice offering a wide range of dental services in the primary care office, including those under a specialist's care.

Being a General or Specialist Dentist at PDS Is a Unique Experience

PDS supports the idea of integrated specialties in dental practice. That means our supported practices can offer a wide range of dental services in the primary care office, including those that fall under a specialist's care. We find that including services for oral surgery, endodontics, and periodontics at the same practice is a strong competitive differentiator of our practices. Moreover, it leads to more collaborative treatment for our patients because the clinicians are in the same office.

In addition, we have unique relationships for both general and specialist dentists that meet their individual needs and career goals. For example, PDS-supported practices allow both general and pediatric dentists to become owner dentists. By contrast, specialists are contracted with several PDS-supported practices and have support teams that manage scheduling and staffing at their assigned practices.

Dentistry can be a rewarding career, both personally and financially. But, whether you choose to be a GP or a specialist, the care you provide and the satisfaction you get from helping people are hard to match with any other profession.

If you are a dentist or want to become one in a PDS-supported practice, we'd like to talk to you about joining our team.

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[1]  The Various Oral Health Care Providers (2023). Available at: https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/oral-health-care-providers (Accessed: 6 January 2023).

[2] The Various Oral Health Care Providers (2023). Available at: https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/oral-health-care-providers (Accessed: 6 January 2023).

[3]  What is the Difference Between a General Dentist and a Specialist? | Mint Dental DC (2023). Available at: http://mintdentaldc.com/what-is-the-difference-between-a-general-dentist-and-a-specialist/ (Accessed: 4 January 2023). 

[4]  Dental Education (2023). Available at: https://www.ada.org/resources/research/health-policy-institute/dental-education#:~:text=There%20are%2070%20accredited%20dental%20schools%20in%20the%20U.S (Accessed: 3 March 2023).

 [5]  How to Become A Dentist: Everything You Need to Know — Shemmassian Academic Consulting. www.shemmassianconsulting.com. https://www.shemmassianconsulting.com/blog/how-to-become-a-dentist. Accessed January 4, 2023.

[6]  Dentistry Guide: How Long Does It Take to Become a Dentist? | Indeed.com. www.indeed.com. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/how-long-does-it-take-to-become-a-dentist. Published 2022. Accessed January 4, 2023.

[7] What is the Difference Between a General Dentist and a Specialist? | Mint Dental DC (2023). Available at: http://mintdentaldc.com/what-is-the-difference-between-a-general-dentist-and-a-specialist/ (Accessed: 4 January 2023).

[8]  Recognized Dental Specialties | National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards (2023). Available at: https://ncrdscb.ada.org/recognized-dental-specialties (Accessed: 6 January 2023).

[9]  The decision to specialize (2023). Available at: https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2020/march/the-decision-to-specialize (Accessed: 4 January 2023).

[10] Dentists: Occupational Outlook Handbook (2022) US Bureau of Labor Statistics. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dentists.htm (Accessed: January 6, 2023). 

[11]  Marquit, M. (2022) 10 Highest-Paid Dental Specialty Careers for Aspiring Dentists - Student Loan Planner, Student Loan Planner. Available at: https://www.studentloanplanner.com/highest-paid-dental-specialty/ (Accessed: 6 January 2023).

[12] Carbone, A. (2023) 5 Questions to Help Choose Your Dental Specialty, Treloaronline.com. Available at: https://www.treloaronline.com/blog/tips-on-how-to-choose-your-dental-specialty (Accessed: 4 January 2023).

[13]  Carbone, A. (2023) Choosing a Residency? Here Are Some Things to Consider, Treloaronline.com. Available at: https://www.treloaronline.com/blog/choosing-a-residency-here-are-some-things-to-consider (Accessed: 4 January 2023).

The information provided by Pacific Dental Services in this blog is intended to educate readers about oral health and related topics. However, it is not a substitute for professional advice or career guidance from a qualified dental professional or educator. It is important to seek the help of experts for any concerns related to oral health or career planning.