What is an oral pathologist?

An oral pathologist, also called an oral maxillofacial pathologist, is a dental professional who specializes in the diagnosis of serious diseases of the dental and facial cavity. Whenever a general dentist finds evidence of a chronic condition during a routine exam, he or she may remove a portion of the affected tissue and send it to a pathologist for further study. It is the job of this expert to determine if the tissue sample is possibly cancerous or infectious.

Although training initially follows the same schedule that leads to a DDS degree, an oral pathologist continues his or her education with a three-year hospital internship in oral and maxillofacial pathology. However, this training does not lead to an MD degree, so it is not unusual for medical professionals to consult an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist rather than a trained pathologist. While many dentists are not averse to seeing an oral pathologist, some doctors are less familiar with the level of expertise in this profession.

In addition to cancer risk, patients may face other disabling oral conditions, such as thrush, opportunistic infections, and ulcerations of the tongue and gums. If these conditions cannot be controlled by standard treatment methods, a general dentist may call an oral pathologist for more advanced procedures. This professional may choose to specialize in this type of practice or spend more time on diagnostics and research.

The number of practicing oral pathologists in the United States is surprisingly low. The National Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathologists currently lists only 236 active fellows. This means a ratio of more than a million citizens for every active pathologist. There are some states without a single registered licensed professional. Much of the laboratory work done by these people, such as biopsy diagnosis, can be done by other laboratory personnel, but specialized treatment can be difficult to duplicate.

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