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Are Dentists Doctors?

Jokes about dentists abound. The punchline to some of my favorite dentist jokes usually end with dentists as failed or wannabe medical doctors. But, what’s with all of the dentist jokes? Is there any truth to them? Are dentists actually doctors, or are they just pretenders with stethoscope envy?

Are Dentists Medical Doctors?

Dentists must complete a post-graduate doctoral program that focuses on oral healthcare. So yes, dentists are in fact doctors. However, most dentists are not medical doctors. I underlined the word most, because some oral surgeons are medical doctors. They complete both dental and medical school. These dual-degree oral surgeons have the unique distinction of being a doctor in two healthcare fields simultaneously.

For the purposes of this article, I define a medical doctor as someone with a medical degree the American Medical Association (AMA) recognizes through their accreditation arm, the ACGME. Therefore, to be a medical doctor, one must complete either of the following medical degrees:

  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

Rewind 50 years, and only someone with an MD would be considered a medical doctor. Today, there are a variety of other professions seeking to be considered medical doctors, but the AMA has so far declined to recognize them as such.

Types of Doctors in Healthcare

There are many doctoral degrees in healthcare besides medical doctors. A non-exhaustive list includes the following professional degrees:

  • Chiropractor (DC)
  • Dentist (DMD or DDS)
  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)
  • Naturopathic Doctor (ND or NMD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (DPharm)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Optometrist (OD)
  • Veterinarian (DVM or VMD)

A few of these professions overlap with medical doctors considerably. This has led to a number of legislative turf wars. Naturopaths, chiropractors, and even nurse practitioners have all crossed swords with medical doctors over the years.

Of the healthcare professions listed above, perhaps none are as insulated from regular medicine as dentistry. Dentistry and medicine both evolved as separate branches from a family tree that includes physician apothecaries and barber surgeons.

How Dentists Came To Be

Barber Surgeons doing minor surgeries

It isn’t just dentists who once fell outside the purview of medicine. Centuries ago, surgeons and physicians inhabited entirely separate worlds. In fact, early versions of the Hippocratic Oath cautioned physicians against surgery.

Surgeons were hardly the organized healthcare professionals we think of today. Instead, skilled tradesmen called Barber Surgeons performed a range of services including haircuts, shaves, bloodletting, minor surgeries, and tooth pulling. Modern dentists and surgeons are actually descended from the barber trade. Even when the first hospitals were constructed, they were staffed with physicians, while surgeons continued to operate in a mostly commercial capacity, advertising themselves with a red, white, and blue striped pole.

Fast forward to today, and the world of physicians and surgeons have become one. In fact, to become a surgeon, one must first attend medical school. Dentists on the other hand have remained divorced from the rest of medicine, along with optometrists and podiatrists. The separation of the mouth from the rest of the body, and of dentistry from medicine, is a historical anomaly, but isn’t likely to change any time soon. There are growing calls to bring dentistry into the fold, but such an effort would prove difficult.

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