By Indeed Editorial Team
Published May 25, 2021
Doctors and dentists are both highly educated healthcare professionals who work closely with patients. Deciding which practice of medicine to pursue can depend on your interests, skills and preferred work environment. Understanding the differences between the two fields can help you make an informed decision on which career you'd rather pursue. In this article, we expand on the duties of dentists and doctors and compare several key aspects of the professions.
A doctor is a trained medical professional who uses their knowledge to support, maintain and restore patient health. Also called physicians and medical practitioners, doctors handle the research, diagnoses and treatment of health complications including disease, injury and physical and mental declines. Doctors often complete extensive training to gain the experience and education needed to practice medicine safely and effectively.
There are many specific fields of study a doctor can specialize in, but most share the following duties:
Consulting with patients: Doctors often spend time with their patients to discover the source of their ailment or injury. They communicate treatment strategies and advise patients on how to move forward with their personal health care plan.
Working with other members of a care team: Doctors often work alongside physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists, anesthesiologists, EMTs and other health professionals to ensure their patients receive the highest quality of care.
Administering treatments: Once doctors have identified a patient's underlying health problem, they execute a treatment strategy to help the patient recover or to help stall their decline.
Reading and interpreting laboratory results: Physicians often order patient tests like blood work, brain and body scans and X-rays to determine a patient's health. Doctors may need to interpret and explain results to other care members, the patient and the patients' families. They can interpret these results to design patient-specific treatment plans.
Practicing empathy and compassion: Sometimes called bedside manner, physicians' ability to communicate with their patients compassionately can help patients during their diagnoses and recovery process.
Simplifying advanced medical concepts: When explaining results, treatment plans and specific medical conditions, doctors often need to simplify their knowledge and language to make their information accessible to patients and their families.
Providing follow-up care for patients: Doctors are sometimes responsible for referring patients to specialists and conducting post-operative tests to determine the success of a treatment strategy.
Completing continuing education: In order to keep their knowledge of medicine current, doctors often need to attend webinars, conferences, presentations and other professional development opportunities to keep their skills up-to-date.
Related: 19 Doctor Careers To Pursue
A dentist is a type of doctor who specializes in caring for teeth and mouths. Dentists work with various forms of technology and equipment like X-ray machines, brushes, dental floss, lasers, drills and scalpels to assist them in evaluating a patient's mouth health and performing necessary dental procedures.
Some common dentist tasks include:
Educating patients: Dentists often have to communicate proper health practices and maintenance techniques to patients. Similarly, they might explain a diagnosis or treatment plan to patients in need of a dental procedure.
Working alongside care teams: Dentists usually depend on assistants, laboratory technicians and dental hygienists to perform their job functions. Together, they can provide quality dental care for their patients.
Filling cavities: If a patient has cavities, dentists handle the removal of the cavity and fill it in with sealant or filling to prevent further damage.
Performing x-rays: Dentists conduct x-rays of patients' mouths to monitor the growth, alignment and health of their teeth and jaws.
Administering anesthesia: For some medical procedures like wisdom teeth removal and root canals, dentists oversee the administration of anesthesia for the duration of the operation.
Removing unhealthy teeth: Dentists perform extractions on teeth that pose threats to the health of the patient's mouth.
Repairing damaged teeth: Dentists may repair damaged or unhealthy teeth and their surrounding tissue.
Related: How To Become a Dentist
While dentists and doctors both work with patients and share many of the same educational requirements, there are several major areas in which they differ, including:
Following earning their bachelor's degree, dentists and doctors both require an additional four years of education. Regardless of specialty, the first two years of dental and medical school include lectures, laboratory work and courses in subjects like advanced life stages, biology, ethics and pharmacology. After their initial two years of study, both doctors and dentists enter their respective clinical settings under the supervision of licensed health professionals. Only dentists are qualified for general practice at this stage, however. Physicians still need to attend at least three years in a residency program.
Related: Learn About Being a Dentist
Following graduation, dentists must pass a state-approved licensure exam to practice dentistry legally. From here, they can work as general dentists or apply for residency programs that qualify them for specialty areas like orthodontics, endodontics or prosthodontics. Typically residencies last two years except for oral surgery, which can take an additional four to six years of study. For physicians, they must also pass a state licensure exam, but this does not qualify them for general practice. Post-doctoral training can last anywhere from three to seven years or more, depending on their chosen specialty and post-doctoral pursuits.
Typically, dentists experience less demanding work loads than physicians. While they might have adjusted schedules to meet the needs of their patients, most dentists can expect to work standard business hours and achieve relatively high levels of work-life balance. General dentists often refer emergency-status patients to specialists, other practitioners or emergency care facilities. Dentists can have their own practices where they work with a team of hygienists, technicians and assistants. Sometimes, however, dentists form group practices that incorporate different dental specialties to maximize their ability to provide patient care.
Physicians' work environments can be much more rigorous. Depending on their specialty, employer or patient load, physicians can work over eight to 10 hours a day with additional on-call expectations. Physicians often remain on their feet for extended periods of time and, depending on their area of practice, may need to address life-threatening or emergency situations regularly. Generally, doctors can expect to have a much more demanding, fast-paced and committed workload than dentists.
Related: Learn About Being a Physician
In the United States, the average salary for dentists is $236,728 per year . Salary expectations can differ based on geographic location, education and specialty.
In comparison, doctors in the United States can expect to make $248,010 per year . Again, exact numbers can vary according to specialty, employer and location in the U.S.
Both doctors and dentists can seek additional schooling to further specialize in their field. Doctors may have more opportunities for diversification than dentists. There are a variety of major medical specialties for doctors, like:
Dentists also have opportunities to specialize in areas including:
Public health dentistry
Another key difference between doctors and dentists is how they interact with patients. Depending on the type of doctor you become, you can see patients for a variety of health-related reasons. Patients can present diverse sets of symptoms and develop unique problems that require personalized treatment plans.
In contrast, dentists' scope work is often more predictable. They usually only respond to teeth, jaw and mouth concerns. Working as a doctor could mean responding to a wider variety of patient situations.
Here are some additional tips that can help you decide which career path is right for you:
Most doctors apply to residency programs based on their goals for practicing medicine. Certain schools offer specialized paths, but these schools are located across the United States. If you are interested in living in a particular place, consider researching the degree programs near a specific area to ensure there are opportunities locally.
Doctors typically spend more time on their feet than dentists, and their hours can be longer and less consistent. However, they often work on a more diverse range of projects and interact with many people daily. Consider the environment you'd most like to work in as you prepare to decide between a career as a physician or a dentist.
Some schools are extremely competitive. As a doctor, qualifying for a residency program after your post-doctoral education is essential to completing your journey in medicine. While there are opportunities for those that don't match with their preferred residency programs, consider evaluating your future goals to see if the experience and degree requirements of medical school are practical for you.
Degree programs for both doctors and dentists can be very expensive. Many students require student loans to complete their educational requirements. While this can translate to higher earning potential later in your career, it's important to understand that, for doctors, fulfilling your earning potential may not begin right away. While most doctors receive a salary for their work in residency training, that salary doesn't always reflect the national average. Residents can expect to work long hours, sometimes up to 80 hours a week, while they complete their training to enter the field as licensed physicians.
Dentists, however, can often work immediately following their graduation and can expect to make close to the national average right away. Understanding expectations and educational realities can help you make your final decision.