Orthodontist or dentist: Who is best for your orthodontic treatment?

If you think you or your child might need braces, a question that may cross your mind is: Orthodontist or dentist: Who is best for orthodontic treatment?

I’m not surprised people feel confused about the difference between an orthodontist and dentist. If you’ve never given it much thought making a distinction between orthodontists and dentists might seem like splitting hairs. Especially now that some dentists now offer orthodontic treatments like braces and Invisalign.

The bottom line? There are differences between orthodontists and dentists and it’s worthwhile understanding them.

What do orthodontists and dentists have in common?

Now I know I just mentioned there are differences, but orthodontists and dentists share a few things in common too.

Both professionals have a bachelor degree in dentistry, that is, is an undergraduate degree requiring five years of study.

Each can advise a patient about overall dental and gum health and both can fit orthodontic appliances, such as braces and Invisalign aligners.

However, a dentist is not a specialist in orthodontics. And while an orthodontist has practised as a dentist (a function of the five years of undergraduate study we mentioned earlier), a dentist is not an orthodontist.

So what about the differences between an orthodontist and dentist?

In practical terms, an orthodontist has completed an additional three years of full time study through a doctorate degree, focusing solely on orthodontics.

Have you heard the theory it takes a person 10,000 hours to master a certain skill? Well, it’s this distinction between a specialist orthodontist and a dentist that is significant. An orthodontist performs the same orthodontic treatments everyday, giving them experience and skill that can’t be compared with a clinician performing orthodontics less frequently.

Yes, it’s true, some orthodontic treatment can be accessed through a general dentist, but a general dentist’s strengths are not in orthodontics, and orthodontics is a specialist area, just as other dental specialties are like endodontics and prosthodontics.

A dentist is working with you to maintain general oral health and address issues that won’t be addressed by an orthodontist. For example, you don’t go to the orthodontist for your regular oral hygiene check. Equally, you do not go to your dentist to correct major bite issues that are affecting you every time you eat or speak or smile. For best results, orthodontists and dentists work together for patients, with each focusing on what they do best.

Here are some other differences between a dentist and orthodontist that might interest you.

  • Has completed a general dental degree (5 years)
  • Registered as a general dentist
  • Coordinates overall dental health for a patient, including referrals to specialists if required
  • Diagnoses and treats disease of teeth and oral tissues
  • Advises on provision and maintenance of general dental care
  • Has completed a general dental degree (5 years)
  • Has also completed a separate orthodontic degree (3 years)
  • Is registered as a specialist orthodontist
  • Specialises in diagnosing and treating teeth and jaw alignment issues
  • Manages orthodontic and orthopaedic facial growth
  • Has knowledge and practice of all orthodontic treatment options for adults and children
  • Expert orthodontic treatment for the best possible smile

Does it really matter if you don’t see an orthodontist for orthodontic treatment?

Still wondering the differences between a dentist and orthodontist are a big deal? Let me share a personal story.

As a teenager, my sister Anna was prescribed a plate by our local dentist. He diagnosed her with a crossbite and did not think to refer her to an orthodontist.
Now in her thirties, Anna has realised she still has a crossbite, a fact which has been brought to her attention conveniently by her orthodontist sister (me!).

Anna’s condition should have been identified and appropriately treated during childhood. Ideally, that should have occurred with a specialist orthodontist. Unfortunately, her only treatment option now is braces and surgery which she doesn’t wish to pursue. Surgery is a serious orthodontic treatment pathway and should always be considered carefully.

I strongly believe that had my parents been given enough of the right information at the right time, they may have elected to pursue treatment during the ideal growth period – when Anna was a teenager. I also believe they would have pursued that treatment through an orthodontist rather than a dentist.

Unfortunately, Anna’s experience is all too common. A concerning trend I’ve noticed is more patients attending my practice who are unhappy with their orthodontic outcome from treatment prescribed by a general dentist.

These dissatisfied patients often were not in a position to make an informed choice as they did not receive the information needed to choose the best option for them.

It’s true, some patients may have elected to follow that same path, but most people, when given all the information and all the options, will make a wise choice for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, most patients do not understand the difference between what a specialist can provide and what a dentist can do.

Understanding why you should see an orthodontist

There are many reasons people believe they need to see an orthodontist, and it will differ depending on your age and stage in life. Ultimately, I believe there’s only one reason – to create a smile that leads to confidence and feeling good about life.

It’s not to say that some dentists aren’t doing orthodontics successfully and that some orthodontists aren’t achieving the best treatment outcomes either. However, your risk of an adverse outcome is increased if you choose to work with someone who is not a specialist in the particular area of treatment and doesn’t have the experience in diagnosis and treatment of the various conditions.

Something else I tell my patients is that it’s important to remember braces are the appliance and the appliance is only as good as the person who’s fitting it. In fact, it’s the skills, understanding and experience in the person putting the appliance on that will make the difference and achieve the outcome you’re after for your child.

And this is the rationale for seeing an orthodontist for your orthodontic treatment.

Bonus! No referral needed to see an orthodontist

Did you know that you don’t need a referral to see an orthodontist. This makes it even easier for parents to visit an orthodontist directly for their child’s treatment. You can still consult with your dentist for a recommendation. In fact, I encourage it, because it allows your dentist and orthodontist to work together and provide the best oral care for your child.