General dentistry is recognized by the American Dental Academy as one of nine specialties. General dentists serve as primary care providers in the field of oral health. A typical doctor in the field of general dentistry will have completed three to four years of undergraduate studies (including pre-dental courses), followed by four years of dental school, graduating as either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).
Who Can Benefit From General Dentistry?
General dentistry is beneficial to most people, as the specialty is centered around the most common problems individuals face with oral health. These issues include dental caries (cavities), periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss. A general or family dentist is responsible for:
- Educating patients on the topic of oral hygiene
- Performing dental examinations
- Taking x-rays or radiographs
- Cleaning the teeth and gums at regularly scheduled visits
- Drilling out dental caries and filling cavities
- Carrying out simple extractions
- Placing simple crowns or bridges
- Prescribing medication for oral infections
- Diagnosing dental problems
- Referring to specialty dentists when needed
Depending on the continuing education they have received and any specialty training, a general dentist may also:
- Fit prosthetics (dentures)
- Perform endodontic (root canal) therapy
- Perform periodontal (gum) therapy
Goals of General Dentistry
A general dentist’s goal is the prevention of dental problems through patient education and regular dental care. When good oral hygiene is taught from an early age and followed up by routine dental appointments, most severe dental problems can be prevented. Once the gum becomes infected or a tooth is compromised, however, prompt treatment must be obtained to avoid more serious dental problems.
“Almost nothing in dentistry heals by itself, and every problem or pathology left unattended will only get worse,” says Sander White, DDS, who has over 40 years of experience in the dental field and currently practices at Advanced Dental Concepts in Broomall, PA. “The earlier you can diagnose the problem, the earlier you can treat the problem, and the better the outcome. A general dentist is in the best position to diagnose dental problems in their earliest stages because he sees each patient on a regular, ongoing basis.”
General dentists are the first line of defense against tooth decay and gum disease. Your family dentist should be part of your overall health care program, as proper dental care and oral hygiene can help lower the risk of other health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
General dental care is also key to diagnosing and treating more advanced dental problems. Having a regular family dentist can save time when a dental emergency arises, as records will be easily accessible, and your general dentist will easily be able to refer you to a specialist if the need arises.
“A general dentist is the main point of access for dental care for most patients, and we become the coordinators of dental care if other practitioners are involved,” Dr. White says. “I provide the care I am competent and confident to provide, including crowns, veneers, composite reconstructions, endodontics and periodontal care, and refer my patients to specialists if implant placements, orthodontic work or complex oral surgery requiring general anesthesia is needed.”
When to See a General or Family Dentist
Children should start seeing a dentist at 1, or within six months of their first tooth coming in. Children and adults with healthy teeth should see a dentist at least once a year – preferably every six months. Individuals with existing periodontal disease or other oral/dental problems may need to visit their dentist more often.
Other times you should make an appointment with your family dentist include if you have tooth pain or sensitivity, if a dark spots are visible on the surfaces of your teeth (indicating decay) or if your gums start bleeding during normal brushing and flossing (indicating periodontal disease).
Family dentistry practices typically will see both children and adults, but some parents prefer to take their children to see a pediatric dentist instead. Pediatric dentists typically have acquired two to three years of post doctoral training with an emphasis on child psychology.
Senior citizens may have their own set of dental challenges. A twice-yearly visit to their general dentist can be supplemented with visits to a periodontist for additional gum care, or to a cosmetic dentist for dentures or implants.
Cost of General Dental Care
Dental insurance plans often cover all preventive care costs completely and may also pay a large portion of the costs for advanced dental work. Other dental care plans provide coverage to a certain limit for most dental procedures. However, uninsured patients shouldn’t delay or omit dental care, as this can lead to extremely expensive and painful procedures down the road.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of proper diagnosis and maintenance,” adds White. “Basic dental care for a person with healthy teeth and gums only costs around $250 a year in my office. For patients who wait until after they are suffering dental disease to make an appointment, the cost is much higher.”
That puts preventive dental care at an affordable 63 cents a day for those with a healthy mouth who want to keep it that way. Compared to the hefty price tag for a root canal or implant, preventive general dentistry is a highly preferred option.