The dental industry is primarily composed of dental practices. The dental supply industry is a separate field that manufactures equipment and supplies used in practices. The most common business model of the dental industry is the small, independent private practice. In this model, one dentist owns the practice, and he or she hires others as needed. A very small practitioner may "do it all," from cleaning the teeth to simple surgeries. In this simplest form, the dentist may have just one or two employees to manage the insurance billings, clerical work, and setting appointments.
The more common practice is one in which the dentist uses hygienists to do the cleanings, X-rays, fluoride treatments, and other tasks they are licensed to perform. The dentist then examines the teeth, looking for signs of possible disease, bite issues, and cavities. If the patient does have cavities or other dental work that needs to be performed, the dentist is the one to complete the work. In this model, the dentist also has office workers to perform the same general tasks as the smaller practitioner.
There are also very large dental practices with multiple locations. These are usually owned by the original dentists that started the practice and they hire other dentists to staff the other locations. This model and one of corporately owned practices are expected to become more common in the next decade, according to the American Dental Trade Association.
The general dentist is the most familiar dental care worker. More than three-quarters of dentists working in he U.S. today do so in a general dental practice, according to the ADA. The remaining dentists specialize in a specific type of dentistry, such as orthodonture. Other employees in the industry work as hygienists, assistants, lab technicians, researchers, or as office managers or workers.
Much of a general dentist's time is spent examining patients' teeth and mouths, treating tooth decay with fillings, and providing crowns and bridges—in other words, restoring the teeth and mouth to function. General dentists also perform many of the treatments that are performed by specialists, but they may refer the most difficult cases to specialists. For example, general dentists perform routine root canals, treat mild gum disease, and extract teeth. General dentists may enter practice immediately after dental school, or they may pursue advanced education in general practice first.
Dentists who complete advanced training in a specialty may practice as dental specialists. There are nine officially recognized specialties in dentistry: dental public health specialists, endodontists, oral and maxillofacial radiologists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, oral pathologists, orthodontists, pediatric dentists, periodontists, and prosthodontists. In 2018, the ADA indicated that 21 percent of dentists were specialists.
Dental public health specialists promote good dental health and dental disease prevention. Many public health dentists work for the government to ensure that individual communities and the nation as a whole receive needed dental care.
Endodontists treat diseases and injuries that affect the tooth root. Root canal treatment involves drilling a hole in a tooth to gain access to the pulp within, removing the pulp tissue and nerves, and filling the root canal. In addition to providing root canal treatment, endodontists sometimes perform endodontic surgery.
Oral and maxillofacial radiologists use imaging technologies to diagnose and treat head and neck diseases, while oral and maxillofacial surgeons perform surgery on the mouth, jaws, and face. In addition to removing impacted wisdom teeth, they repair jaw fractures, remove cancerous tumors, and surgically correct poorly aligned jaws. Some oral surgeons perform plastic surgery procedures on the face. Oral pathologists diagnose mouth conditions, such as ulcers, and oral diseases, such as cancer.
Orthodontists, who constitute the largest number of dental specialists, correct problems in tooth and jaw alignment, usually through the use of orthodontic braces or removable appliances. While most orthodontic patients are children and teenagers, adults make up an increasing portion of the orthodontist's caseload.
Pediatric dentists provide a broad range of dental care to children, from infancy through adolescence. Periodontists treat diseases of the gums and bones that support the teeth. They perform gum surgery, prescribe antibiotics, insert dental implants to replace missing teeth, and perform procedures to regenerate bone around the teeth. Prosthodontists provide advanced treatment with dentures or bridges for people who have missing teeth.
The hygienist's job usually includes cleaning the teeth above and below the gum line, taking X rays, applying fluoride to teeth, and educating patients about dental hygiene practices, such as flossing. In some states, dental hygienists may practice independently, but in most states they may work only under a dentist's supervision.
Dental assistants have less dental training than dentists and dental hygienists. They may be clinical or preventive dental assistants, working alongside the dentist while they are treating a patient. As infection control managers, dental assistants are responsible for disinfecting and sterilizing dental equipment. They often assemble instrument trays for the dentist's use.
The vast majority of dental laboratory technicians work in dental laboratories rather than dental offices. They make crowns, dentures, porcelain veneers, and other items needed to restore damaged teeth or replace missing teeth.
Dental research offers scientific opportunities to dentists. Dental researchers may work for the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Many researchers work at universities and dental schools. The dental industry, which includes companies that make filling materials, dental instruments, medications, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, also employs and funds many researchers.