Many patients don’t know the difference between a specialist orthodontist and a dentist who offers orthodontic (tooth straightening) treatment. I suppose the real question is does it matter who straightens your teeth?
What is a specialist orthodontist?
A specialist orthodontist is a dentist who has had a further 3 years of training solely in orthodontics. They get on the job training and mentoring with qualified orthodontists who are affiliated to one of the dental schools (often they are professors in orthodontics). They are taught all about the development of the teeth and jaws, how to diagnose orthodontic problems and plan treatment. Whilst training they work on patients learning the techniques of placing and adjusting braces to achieve stable, aesthetic results.
During this time they attend tutorials and study the evidence on the types of brace treatment so they can judge the most effect treatment options. This information is necessary to be able to properly diagnose and plan a patient’s treatment.
At the end of the 3 years they have to present 5 cases that they have completed treatment on to a board of examiners, sit exams and answer questions in an oral viva. Only when they have satisfied the examiners that they have the knowledge, understanding and competence are they awarded the Orthodontic qualifications to be able to call themselves a specialist orthodontist.
Who can offer orthodontic treatment?
According to the general dental council only a dentist with a registrable qualification in orthodontics can call themselves a specialist orthodontist or an orthodontist. However all dentists can carry out orthodontic treatment as long as they can demonstrate they are “trained, competent and indemnified” to do so.
The key thing here is competency. Many of the treatments available to straighten teeth provide training but this can vary from a few hours to 2 days depending on the provider. The training is geared towards that treatment only and won’t necessary cover the fundamental core knowledge of diagnosis, treatment planning and limitations of treatment. It will also mean that they will only be able to recommend that one treatment option (unless they have trained on multiple treatments).
So when a dentist offers orthodontic treatment it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the same as the specialist orthodontist offering you orthodontic treatment. Some dentists do actually take the time to learn about all aspects of orthodontics as they understand that having that extra knowledge will help them advise their patients on the most appropriate treatment (even if they means referring them to a specialist). As a dentist with sole practice in orthodontics I have been lucky to be trained on the job over the last 13 years and have benefited from mentorship of a specialist orthodontist. This is the ideal way to learn and become competent in delivering orthodontic treatment.
So who should do your orthodontics?
The answer is all in the GDC scope of practice – someone who has had “training” and is “competent” in orthodontics. How you judge that is perhaps more difficult. My recommendation – ask for evidence (what training have they had, photos of previous patients they have treated), look at reviews and find out how long they have been straightening teeth. That way you can be confident you are in the right hands.