An oral pathologist, also called an oral maxillofacial pathologist, is a dental professional who specializes in the diagnosis of serious dental and facial cavity diseases. Whenever a general dentist encounters evidence of a chronic condition during a routine exam, he or she may remove a portion of the affected tissue and send it to the 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 program 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. This training does not lead to an MD degree, however, so it is not unusual for medical professionals to consult an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist instead of a trained pathologist. While many dentists have no reluctance to consult an oral pathologist, some physicians are not as familiar with this profession's level of expertise.
Besides the risk of cancer, patients may face other incapacitating oral conditions such as canker sores, opportunistic infections and ulcerations of the tongue and gums. If these conditions cannot not be controlled by standard treatment methods, a general dentist may call in an oral pathologist for more advanced procedures. This professional may choose to specialize in this type of hands-on practice or spend more time in 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 over one million citizens to every one active pathologist. There are some states without a single licensed professional on record. Much of the laboratory work performed by these people, such as biopsy diagnosis, can be performed by other laboratory personnel, but specialized treatment may be difficult to duplicate.