In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Public health dentists often combine direct patient care with work focusing on population-level health. Some provide services to patients in underserved areas or those who could not afford dental care otherwise. They are also administrators, advisors, and consultants, helping to create and oversee programs that provide care or promote dental health. There are public health dentists involved in programs such as community water fluoridation, school-based dental screenings, oral cancer screenings, and educational efforts to promote good oral hygiene. Some advise politicians on new programs that should be funded and enacted. Some participate in forensic investigations, using their skills to help identify victims of crimes or disasters.
Education and Certification
Public health dentists need a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree and a license to practice in the state where they work. Extra training may not be needed, but experience or training in the world of public health is often expected. Many public health dentists hold MPH degrees. Dentists can pursue residency training specifically in dental public health, which includes earning an MPH, and obtain specialty board certification from the American Board of Dental Public Health.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Strong leadership, management, and communication skills
- Ability to work with a team that may include other health professionals, community leaders, politicians, researchers, and others
- Ability to design, manage, and evaluate community programs
- Interest in research and the knowledge of how to design and carry out studies
- Understanding of epidemiologic principles and at least basic statistics
- Up-to-date knowledge of dental health, oral hygiene practices, and preventive dentistry
A typical salary for a public health dentist is similar to what a general dentist would earn. The median salary for dentists in general practice is $143,000, with most earning at least $72,000 per year. For public health dentists who work at universities, salaries range from about $50,000 per year to about $200,000 for the very highest level jobs. Public health dentists usually have positions that include benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans, unlike dentists in private practice.
Many health departments employ public health dentists to work in community clinics and/or to develop policy and oversee oral health programs. A small number work at the CDC. Some are professors at dental schools.
The number of board-certified public health dentists is small, and less than 1% of U.S. dentists work in public health. At present, there appear to be more public health dentistry jobs than there are qualified public health dentists.
For Further Information
- American Association of Public Health Dentistry (AAPHD)
- Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors (ASTDD)
- American Public Health Association—Oral Health Section