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What is an Oral Pathologist?

Michael Pollick
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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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.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon255179 — On Mar 16, 2012

In today's era, the value of an oral pathologist is less as compared to other specialty dentists, like an oral surgeon, prosthodontist, endodontist, periodontist etc.

But without the opinion of oral pathologists, no surgical treatment can be planned.

Therefore, oral pathologists have a knowledge right from molecular to pathological aspect of a disease.

By gregg1956 — On Jul 23, 2010

I bet the job prospects for oral pathologists are pretty good though, since there's so few of them around.

By googlefanz — On Jul 23, 2010

I've heard that the additional training for oral pathologists is pretty intense.

Besides the regular dental training, they also have to train in oral surgery, radiology, even microbiology.

Maybe that's why there's not so many in the US right now -- it's just too hard to train for!

By pharmchick78 — On Jul 23, 2010

Oral pathologists are most commonly called upon to diagnose or work with the really weird stuff -- leukoplakia, oral cancer, recurrent lesions, that kind of stuff.

Some are even trained in oral surgery, and can perform advanced dental procedures that a regular dentist may not be comfortable with.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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