The Critical Role of Public Health Dentists and How to Become One

The world of dentistry is one comprised of many specialties and roles. If you were to ask most people what they think of when they think about dentistry, you’d likely get similar answers. General dentists, oral surgeons, and orthodontists. And that perception shapes the direction many aspiring dental professionals take when they begin the long path to a career in the industry.

But those aren’t the only positions to aim for. There are a variety of lesser-known roles that offer richly rewarding experiences. They also offer the chance to make a real difference in the lives of others. One of those roles is that of a public health dentist. It’s one of the nine specialties recognized by the American Dental Association, and it should get far more attention than it does.

To make that happen, though, it would help if the field had a higher profile so more people become aware of how important a job it is. To help, here’s an overview of the position of public health dentist. We’ll cover what the job is, what you need to do to become one, and why it’s such an important part of the broader health picture in the world.

What is a Public Health Dentist?

A public health dentist often performs regular dental work in underprivileged or underserved communities. But that’s not the primary focus of their job. Their main task is to study the communities they serve and look for ways to improve the overall dental health of the local population. This might include planning and executing public dental health initiatives to spread awareness of certain common dental problems. It also involves identifying endemic behaviors that contribute to poor dental health outcomes in the community and working to correct them.

Why it’s a Critical Role

In the US and around the world, dental health is among the most neglected parts of public health infrastructure. In the US, it’s estimated that 108 million people lack dental insurance, and many of them forego dental care due to the costs involved. The problem is especially acute among older populations, as two-thirds of Medicare recipients lack meaningful dental coverage. And it’s a major health crisis, given the fact that dental diseases and disorders often have health consequences that go far beyond losing one’s teeth. Public health dentists help to counteract much of that neglect by working to improve dental conditions among those populations.

The role of a public health dentist is also one that offers plenty of room for career growth. For example, a public health dentist might begin their career journey working directly with underserved people but work their way up into the higher echelons of public health agencies. From there, they can become instrumental in shaping government policy to address inequities in the system, as well as to bring needed attention to the shortcomings of the present dental care system. In other words, they can become true change agents in a field where such change is quite overdue.

How to Become a Public Health Dentist

The qualifications required to become a public health dentist begin with those of any other dentist role. Attending dental school is mandatory, where they must earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) degree. Many of the skills needed to become a public health dentist are covered within those programs.

From there, interested dentists often look for ways to volunteer their services in underserved communities. They can do so on a pro bono basis or with a means-tested reduced fee structure. Then, it’s advisable to pursue a Master of Public Health degree. Doing so helps to prepare a dentist for the wider roles they will have to undertake in the field of public health dentistry. And of course, it’s considered standard practice to join both the ADA as well as any relevant state or local dental associations.

And for dentists who wish to move into a research position in the wider public health field, it’s possible to earn an advanced graduate degree in dental public health. They might also complete a residency program to prepare them for the American Board of Dental Public Health specialty examination. Attaining those credentials opens the door to serving on national-level public health boards and with other high-level organizations.

Alternate Career Paths

Of course, it’s also possible to become a public health dentist if you’ve already begun building a career in another parallel field. In fact, it’s not uncommon for pharmacists and registered nurses to shift course and take the required training to become an accredited dentist. And because people coming from those careers often have a background in public health and some knowledge of epidemiology, they end up as excellent candidates to become public health dentists.

But the truth is that anyone with a strong interest in public health can work toward becoming a public health dentist. And doing so puts them on track to have a long and rewarding career helping people in need. And for those with a strong desire for community service, there are few positions more in need of enthusiastic and energetic people to tackle the many challenges involved in improving public dental health outcomes.

The Bottom Line

Even though they often go unheralded and unnoticed, public health dentists are a necessary and essential part of the broader public health picture. And because they work in a field that suffers from access issues their work can make a major difference in both the quality of life as well as the health outcomes of large parts of the population. For that alone, they should get far more recognition than they presently do.

It’s also worth pointing out that the job of public health dentist is one that travels well. There are countless opportunities to work overseas for those in the field, making it a job with almost limitless possibilities. That makes it perfect for service-minded people who also love to experience new cultures and different ways of life around the world. And that makes it one of the most exciting jobs in dentistry for those who seek it out. Given the critical nature of the work, one would hope that more talented people do just that going forward.