Dentists - What They Do

Dentists diagnose, treat, prevent and control disorders of the teeth and mouth. They work in private practice or may be employed in hospitals, clinics, public health facilities or universities.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Examine patients' teeth, gums and surrounding tissue to diagnose disease, injury and decay and plan appropriate treatment
  • Restore, extract and replace diseased and decayed teeth
  • Perform oral surgery, periodontal surgery and other treatments
  • Clean teeth and instruct patients on oral hygiene
  • Design bridgework, fit dentures and provide appliances to correct abnormal positioning of the teeth and jaws, or write fabrication instructions or prescriptions for use by denturists and dental technicians
  • Supervise dental hygienists, dental assistants and other staff.
  • Dentists may specialize in such areas as oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, oral pathology, oral radiology or public health dentistry.

Job titles

  • dentist
  • endodontist
  • oral and maxillofacial surgeon
  • oral pathologist
  • oral radiologist
  • orthodontist
  • pediatric dentist
  • periodontist
  • prosthodontist
  • public health dentist
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • One to four years of pre-dentistry university studies or, in Quebec, completion of a college program in sciences and A university degree from a recognized dental program are required.
  • Licensing by a provincial or territorial regulatory body is required.
  • Dentists in general practice can move into a specialized practice through advanced training.
  • Licensing for specializations is required. 

Essential Skills


  • Read short explanations and instructions on labels. For example, they may read mixing and storage directions on the labels of filling materials. They may also read about undesirable side effects on prescription drug labels. (1)
  • Read memos from co-workers and letters from colleagues and patients. For example, they may read letters from other dentists asking for clinical information and responding to questions about referred patients. They may read memos from hygienists and dental assistants on matters such as vacations and time off for training sessions. They may also read thank you and complaint letters from patients. (2)
  • Read treatment records prior to the clinical assessment and treatment of patients' teeth and mouth disorders. They synthesize information found in records, paying close attention to aspects such as reactions to drugs and diseases diagnosed by physicians and other dentists. They use this information to establish patients' profiles and to develop protocols for treatments. (3)
  • Read trade publications to stay abreast of legislative changes and technological advances in their fields of practice. For example, a dentist may read about the Canadian Dental Association's guidelines for personal data protection. A cosmetic dentist may read about intraoral cameras and imaging software used to educate patients and show them what they will look like after dental work. An orthodontist may read about the reliability of new bracket and arch wire materials. (3)
  • Read bulletins from Health Canada and provincial ministries of health outlining changes in health and safety procedures and offering guidance with treatments. They read these bulletins to gain information which may affect their own practices. For example, a dentist may read a bulletin describing changes in sanitization protocols. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon may read a bulletin presenting the results of a recent review of antibiotics and the selection criteria suggested by respirology, infectious disease and pharmacology experts. (3)
  • Read a wide range of dental journals such as Oral Heath, the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics, the Revue de stomatologie et de chirurgie maxillo-faciale, the Journal of Clinical Periodontology, the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association and the Journal dentaire du Qu├ębec. They select and read relevant articles to learn about the results of experimental treatment procedures and expand their knowledge of diseases, injuries, disorders, dysfunctions and defects to teeth, jaws, facial bones, gums and surrounding tissues. For example, a dentist may read an article about the diagnosis and treatment of malignant tumours on the jaw. (4)

Document use

  • Scan product and equipment labels for various data. For example, an orthodontist may scan the label on an orthodontic kit for the numbers and dimensions of the bands, brackets and arch wires it contains. (1)
  • Enter data into tables and schedules. For example, dentists may enter the locations, treatments rendered, time spent and fees into summary tables so that patients' accounts and records can be updated. They may enter the dates and times of upcoming appointments into treatment schedules. (2)
  • Locate data in lists and schedules. For example,they may read bibliographies at the end of journal articles to identify other articles relevant to treatments of conditions such as gingival recession. A pediatric dentist may read the daily operating room schedule at the hospital to locate data on the day, time and location of a scheduled surgery and the names of assistants. (2)
  • Interpret graphs contained in textbooks, trade publications and academic journals to learn about the effectiveness of materials and techniques used in the treatment of diseases, injuries, disorders, dysfunctions and defects to teeth, jaws, facial bones, gums and surrounding tissues. They may combine information from a number of graphs to fully understand the effectiveness of a technique. For example, a prosthodontist may interpret a series of graphs to learn about the strength, flow, stiffness and radiopacity of resin composites used for intracoronal restorations. (3)
  • Complete forms. For example, dentists may complete dental laboratory forms to order crowns, bridges and other devices intended to correct the abnormal positioning of the teeth and jaws. They enter data such as prescription dates, addresses, ages, drug names and dosages on prescription forms. (3)
  • Locate data in forms. For example, a dentist may review a medical history form completed by a patient to locate data on illnesses, disorders, pregnancies, hospitalizations, anaesthesias, symptoms of gum diseases, allergies to medications, drugs taken and ongoing medical treatments. (3)
  • Interpret radiographs. For example, a dentist may interpret a radiograph of a patient's jaw and teeth to identify pathologies, cavities, tooth root problems, missing and impacted teeth, tumours of the jaw and signs of gum disease. A dentist may also interpret panoramic radiographs to determine the success of anchorage implants. (3)


  • Enter text and write short notes on forms. For example, a dentist may write notes about dental procedures in a patient's record. The dentist may also write instructions on a dental laboratory form to order an appliance to correct the position of the patient's teeth. (1)
  • Write lengthy memos to co-workers and letters to colleagues. For example, a dentist may write a letter to an endodontist to refer a patient whose pulp chamber is infected. The endodontist may write back to the dentist after seeing the patient to describe the root canal therapy administered. A pediatric dentist may write a memo to co-workers to inform them of a new method of filing patients' records. (2)
  • Prepare procedures to be used by their co-workers and colleagues. They establish the steps that have to be followed when accomplishing certain tasks. They must be explicit and precise to reduce ambiguity and the possibility of misinterpretations. For example, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon may write procedures for nurses dealing with surgery patients in outpatients' clinics. A public health dentist may write a new disinfection protocol for dental office personnel. (3)
  • Write the text for brochures, leaflets and websites to promote oral health approaches and services. They must address key questions about dental conditions, diseases, therapies, procedures, materials and equipment in an effective manner. They may have to gather, select and rewrite information from various sources for a mixed audience of patients, dentists, physicians and representatives from community organizations. For example, public health dentists may write about the importance of dental care during pregnancy and the safety of dental x-rays and local anaesthetics. Dentists in private practice may write about their clinics' expertise in dental cosmetics and implants. (4)
  • May write articles and case study reports for dental journals and conference proceedings. They may describe complex clinical conditions encountered, outline diagnostic and treatment procedures used and discuss results obtained. For example, a periodontist may write an article about pocket reduction, crown lengthening, soft tissue graft and other procedures used to treat gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis. A dentist may write an article about the use of blood growth factors for bone regeneration in maxillary sinuses. A prosthodontist may write an article about diagnostic criteria for patients suffering from different forms of edentulism. (5)


Money Math

  • Calculate and verify purchase order and invoice amounts. For example, they verify purchase order amounts for dental products, materials and equipment. They calculate line amounts, discounts, surcharges and sales taxes when preparing invoices for dental services. (3)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Create work schedules for workers under their supervision. They must take into account workload indicators and the need to distribute job tasks equitably. They may have to adjust work schedules because of vacations and sick leave. For example, an orthodontist may create work schedules for a dental clinic employing four dentists, four dental hygienists, four dental assistants, an office administrator, a bookkeeper and three receptionists. (3)
  • May calculate amounts for payroll, utility and tax accounts. For example, dentists in private practice calculate payroll amounts. They multiply hours worked by hourly wage rates, calculate and subtract deductions for federal and provincial income taxes and contributions to pension plans and employment insurance. They may have to use different hourly wage rates for overtime and work on statutory holidays. (3)
  • Prepare and monitor operational budgets for their dental offices and units. They have to ensure that expenditures incurred for salaries, rents, dental and office supplies, utilities, insurance, accountants, lawyers, periodicals, advertising, conferences and courses are fully covered by their budgets. They may have to change budget line items because of unexpected events. (4)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • May calculate quantities of materials for mixtures, using ratios, rates and percentages. For example, a dentist may calculate the amounts of water and plaster needed for a specific amount of dental cast. (2)
  • Measure distances, lengths, widths, depths and angles in patients' mouths using callipers, protractors, periodontal probes and other specialized instruments. For example, an orthodontist may measure the movement of a tooth whose root is tipped to correct a crown's angle. A dentist may measure the length of a root to plan a root canal treatment. A periodontist may also measure the depth of a periodontal pocket to ascertain the need for periodontal surgery or closed flap scaling. (3)

Data Analysis Math

  • Compare distances, lengths, widths, depths and angles in patients' mouths to reference ranges and historical data to aid in diagnosis. For example, a pediatric dentist may compare the distance between a child's teeth to a reference range to determine the need for corrective measures such as braces. An orthodontist may compare a patient's tooth movement over a number of months to determine whether it is increasing, decreasing or remaining constant. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon may compare the distance between a patient's upper and lower teeth before and after a temporal mandibular joint operation for evaluation purposes. (2)
  • Collect and analyse operational data. For example, a dentist may collect and analyse data on the number of dental procedures of each type performed over a period of time to determine the need for additional hygienists, assistants and dentists. (3)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate times needed to perform job duties using past experience as a guide. For example, a dentist may estimate the time required for an appointment with a patient by assessing the nature and complexity of dental procedures to be performed. (1)
  • Estimate costs of dental procedures for patients. For example, a dentist may estimate the cost of a dental implant for a patient taking into account the estimated time to perform the procedure, an hourly rate and the amount covered by the patient's insurance plan. (2)

Oral communication

  • Talk to suppliers about technical specifications, price quotes, service options and delivery times for dentistry equipment, materials and supplies. For example, a dentist may speak with a cavity sealant supplier to obtain price and shipping information. An orthodontist may talk to a laboratory technician to specify the type of appliance needed for a patient. (1)
  • Provide directions and discuss job tasks with dental hygienists, dental assistants, receptionists and other dentists. For example, a dentist may give instructions to a receptionist about the scheduling of a follow-up appointment with a patient. The dentist may also discuss the next surgical procedure with a dental assistant and provide directions about the preparation of instruments and materials. (2)
  • Share information on patients' conditions with fellow dentists, doctors, pharmacists and other health care professionals. For example, a dentist may discuss a patient's health history, gum disease and treatment plan with a periodontist to whom he has referred the patient. A dentist may consult a pharmacist on the use of a new antibiotic and its possible side effects for a patient. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon may speak with an anaesthesiologist before a surgery to discuss a patient's condition and special needs. (2)
  • Interact with patients and their relatives. They interview patients and their families to collect health history information. They listen to complaints about teeth and mouth sensitivity and recommend ways of relieving pain. They explain diagnoses and discuss treatment options, if needed. They answer questions about dental procedures and alleviate concerns. They educate patients on proper oral hygiene practices. To be effective, dentists have to establish patients' trust and provide reassurance. (3)
  • Attend meetings with co-workers to coordinate tasks and discuss appointment schedules, office administration, equipment use and other matters affecting their work. At these meetings, they may teach procedures they have developed and demonstrate how to operate new equipment. For example, a dentist may teach the proper completion of a new patient health history form to staff members. The dentist may also demonstrate how to load digital x-rays when using a new imaging system. (3)
  • Make presentations to colleagues and community members. For example, a public health dentist may deliver an oral presentation to health care managers and community members on the influence of parents' behaviour on their children's dental health. A dentist may present a case study on the use of blood growth factors for bone regeneration in maxillary sinuses to colleagues at an international conference. (4)


Problem Solving

  • Face suppliers' delays which may adversely affect their appointment schedules. For example, dentists may face delays because the laboratories they regularly use are missing technicians and unable to process orders. They contact the laboratories to confirm delay times and source other laboratories to fabricate dentures in the interim. (2)
  • Encounter frightened patients who cannot be approached easily. For example, pediatric dentists often treat children who are scared of the sting of needles and the sound of drills. With the help of dental assistants, they may reassure the children and turn their attention towards pleasing objects such as stuffed animals. While the children are distracted, they may perform the necessary procedures as quickly as possible. They may also reward good behaviour afterwards with small toys. (2)
  • Face absenteeism, misconduct and other breaches of employment contracts. Depending on the severity and circumstances, they may meet with the concerned workers to discuss the reasons underlying their behaviour and remind them of employment standards and expectations. They may also issue reprimand letters to warn these workers that reoccurrences may lead to disciplinary actions and permanent discharges. (3)
  • Experience difficulties in getting some of their patients to comply with treatment requirements. They try different approaches in order to motivate patients to conform to prescribed procedures. If they fail in their attempts, they may recommend different treatment approaches for the patients. For example, orthodontists experience difficulties in getting some patients to wear their braces. They may recommend inserting anchor implants into their mouths. (3)
  • Have patients who lose consciousness in reaction to local anaesthesias. They immediately call paramedics for assistance. In the meanwhile, they place cold compresses on the patients' head, tilt them backwards in their chair and give them oxygen. In cases of cardiac arrests, they administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation to patients while waiting for paramedics to arrive. (3)

Decision Making

  • Select tasks to assign to dental hygienists, dental assistants, receptionists and other staff. They consider individual backgrounds, skills, experiences, strengths, weaknesses and availabilities. (2)
  • Choose the dentistry products, materials and equipment to purchase for their offices, clinics and units. They use their professional knowledge and take into account such factors as budgets and anticipated demand for their services. (2)
  • Select techniques, approaches and procedures to treat, prevent and control disorders of the teeth and mouth in patients. For example, they may select pulp capping or root canal to treat the exposure of pulp. They consider diagnostic data such as radiographs and all other relevant factors including their patients' age, health and financial resources. (3)
  • Decide to refer some patients to other dentists and health care professionals when treatments needed are beyond their competences. To make appropriate decisions, they have to assess the severity of the patients' condition. For example, a dentist may decide to refer a patient presenting signs of advanced periodontal disease to a periodontist. A periodontist may decide to refer a patient whose lower gum presents a lump to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon more suitably trained to diagnose and treat mouth cancer. (3)

Critical Thinking

  • Judge the suitability of dentistry materials for specific patients. They consider the strengths and limitations of each material and the particular needs and wishes of their patients. For example, a dentist may judge the suitability of using gold, silver, composite resin or porcelain for a patient's filling. The dentist must consider the colour, texture, strength, flow, stiffness and durability of each material but also the patient's preferences. (2)
  • Evaluate the performance of dental hygienists, dental assistants, receptionists and others working with them. As part of these assessments, they determine the extent to which these workers have met expectations and adhered to established rules, procedures and schedules. Their conclusions may lead to recommendations for further training, increased supervision, promotions and job task reassignments. (3)
  • Assess the effectiveness of procedures used to treat patients' mouths and teeth. For example, an orthodontist assesses the effectiveness of the application of braces to a patient's teeth. The orthodontist schedules frequent visits with the patient during treatment to verify tooth positioning and movement and regular visits up to two years after treatment to ensure there are no relapses. (3)
  • Evaluate their patients' oral health. They review patients' medical and dental history forms, referral letters and treatment records. They examine patients' teeth, jaws, facial bones, gums and surrounding tissues and interpret radiographs. Their evaluations may lead them to the diagnosis of cavities, disorders, dysfunctions, malocclusions, anomalies, defects and life-threatening diseases. They may recommend treatment plans as a result of these evaluations. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Dentists plan and organize job tasks to meet the treatment needs of their patients. They set priorities and provide input into the day-to-day scheduling of patients' visits although their actual appointments are usually booked by their receptionists. Emergency visits from patients and other unexpected events force them to frequently reorganize job tasks. (3)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Dentists play a central role in organizing, planning and scheduling day-to-day oral health services and contribute to long-term and strategic planning for their organizations. They are responsible for assigning tasks to dental hygienists, dental assistants, receptionists and other workers. (3)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember procedures performed during the day, specific problems encountered and recommendations discussed to complete patients' records at the end of the day.
  • Remember the names of commonly used drugs, the formats in which they are available, their contraindications and possible side effects in order to write prescriptions.
  • Remember the numerous dental products that are currently available and their applicability to specific conditions.

Finding Information

  • Find historical information on patients' dental health by interviewing them, consulting referring dentists and searching treatment records. (2)
  • Find detailed information on dentistry products, materials and equipment by contacting manufacturers and searching their websites. (2)
  • Find information about pathologies, disorders, dysfunctions and treatments with which they are not familiar by consulting colleagues and searching a wide range of sources including textbooks, trade publications, dental and medical journals and websites. (3)
  • Find detailed information about drugs such as optimal dosages, indications, potential interactions, physiochemical characteristics, mechanisms of action and side and adverse effects by referring to labels and package inserts, consulting pharmacists and searching the Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties. They need to analyse this information so that they can prescribe appropriate medications to patients. (3)
  • Find information about the legal and ethical aspects of dentistry including employment laws, legal standards for exposure to x-radiation, issues of confidentiality and access to patient information by third parties and patient-dentist conflicts of interest. They may search government websites, read legal handbooks and journal articles, attend conferences and discuss with colleagues. They may also consult legal experts. (3)

Digital technology

  • May use word processing. For example, they may write and edit text for memos, letters, procedures, promotional materials and journal articles using word processing programs such as Word. They generally use basic page and character formatting features. (2)
  • May use databases. For example, they may enter and retrieve patients' treatment, appointment and billing data from databases using programs such as Access and Windent. They may also search, display and print data from these databases. (2)
  • May use the Internet. For example, they may access professional association websites and perform keyword searches to obtain information on dentistry-related topics. (2)
  • May use graphics software. For example, they may create slide shows using presentation software such as PowerPoint. In order to develop effective presentations for professional conferences, they may import scanned images, tables and graphs. They may also create three-dimensional representations of patients' teeth and jaws using digital x-rays and imaging software such as Dolphin's Imaging Plus. (3)
  • May use communication software. For example, they may receive correspondence and send e-mail to colleagues, suppliers and patients. They may also attach scanned radiographs and patients' history files to their e-mail messages. (3)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Dentists perform some tasks independently but more generally work with teams of health care professionals. Within their offices and dentistry units, they direct, lead, supervise and train dental hygienists, dental assistants, receptionists and other staff to ensure the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of oral health services. They also coordinate their own work with that of doctors, pharmacists and other dentists and health care professionals to share information on patients' conditions and on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the teeth and mouth.

Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is an integral part of the job for dentists. They are expected to stay abreast of new diagnosis and treatment procedures for teeth and mouth disorders, changes to health and safety protocols and technological advances in dentistry. On a day-to-day basis, they acquire new learning by speaking with co-workers and colleagues, browsing the Internet and reading extensively. They also attend conferences, seminars, symposia, workshops and courses offered by professional societies, dental laboratories and universities on topics relevant to their specialization areas.

Dentists may be required by provincial dental regulatory colleges to develop their own learning plans and engage in continuous learning to maintain their professional certification.