Becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon

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Observing a dental exam in a clinic in Tanzania. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon treats dental and medical problems involving the oral cavity and the maxillofacial area. The maxillofacial region of the body includes the bones of the forehead, face, cheekbones and the soft tissues of those areas. Surgery may be performed in order to treat or correct various medical or dental conditions. Oral and maxillofacial surgery is considered a dental specialty, but the type of work required is usually much more complex than what a general dentist does. Maxillofacial surgeons are really a combination of a dentist and a medical doctor. In fact, many oral and maxillofacial surgeons have dual degrees in both dentistry and medicine.

The Work of an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon

There are many dental and medical conditions that may require surgery to correct. Several types of surgery may be performed by oral and maxillofacial surgeons, from reconstructive surgery to correcting conditions like temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons may also perform surgery to repair structural abnormalities involving the mouth, neck or face. Abnormities may be due to congenital defects or injury from trauma.

Surgeons are also often involved in the treatment of oral cancer. For instance, surgeons may remove tissue or tumors for biopsy or as part of a treatment plan. Maxillofacial surgeons also do reconstructive surgery after removing tumors from the face, neck, jaw or mouth. In addition, oral surgeons may perform surgery to remove impacted teeth and do cosmetic dental procedures.

Although they may be involved in diagnosing a condition, oral surgeons often meet with patients who are referred from their general dentist or primary care doctor after a diagnosis has been made.

Education and training

The education and training involved in becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon is not for those looking to get through school quickly. Students interested in this dental specialty should take several science and math classes in high school. Although one specific college major is not required to apply to dental school, good grades and several science classes are needed. Although requirements may vary by dental school, students will often be required to have completed biochemistry, physics, biology, organic chemistry and general chemistry. After graduating with a four-year degree, the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) needs to be taken. If all goes well, you are off to dental school for four years.

There are a couple of different paths someone can take to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in the United States. For example, after dental school, you can apply for a surgical residency approved by the American Dental Association’s Commission of Dental Accreditation. The surgical residencies for oral and maxillofacial surgeons are usually four to six years. After completion of the residency, surgeons can take a written and oral exam to become board certified in oral and maxillofacial surgery.

The second path is to earn dual degrees as both a dentist and medical doctor. Several training programs and residencies provide medical education concurrently, which is incorporated into the oral and maxillofacial residency. This route results in a medical degree also being awarded. Although program length may vary, it often takes six years to complete a dual degree. Other programs integrate different degrees into the surgical residency, such as a Ph.D. As would be expected with dual degree programs, the work is intense.

Work environment, opportunities and salary

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons work for hospitals, large medical centers and dental practices. Similar to other dental and medical specialties, oral surgeons need to have strong leadership skills. They also need to be detail oriented, since many surgeries require that even the smallest detail be followed exactly.

Physically, surgeons need to have steady hands and stamina.  Oral surgery often involves hours spent on your feet. As a maxillofacial surgeon, you will also need to be able to handle stress and stay calm in difficult situations.

Advancement opportunities may include becoming a professor at a dental school or supervising residents in training. In addition to working for a dental practice or healthcare facility, many oral and maxillofacial surgeons open up their own practices.

The salary for an oral surgeon will depend on the amount of experience the doctor has, their geographic location and what type of facility or practice they work for. According to Forbes Magazine, the average salary for an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in the United States in 2013 was $218,000 a year.

Pros and Cons

As with all careers in healthcare, there are pros and cons to becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. The amount of time it takes to train to become an oral surgeon is lengthy. Four years of undergrad work, four years of dental school and four to six years of residency is a long time. Some people may see this as a negative. The cost of schooling for that long also needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a career path.

In addition, oral and maxillofacial surgeons often work very long hours. Surgery within the oral cavity and maxillofacial area is often very complex and can be high pressure. Oral surgeons may also need to be on call since emergencies that require immediate treatment may occur.

On the plus side, the work can be very challenging and extremely interesting. Surgeons often treat patients with a variety of conditions and injuries. The variety of work can keep the job exciting. Most people who go into oral and maxillofacial surgery probably enjoy learning. The field is always evolving, which presents many ongoing opportunities to learn new skills and procedures.

Working as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon can also be very rewarding. Facial and oral abnormalities may not only interfere with a person’s ability to function normally, it can impact every aspect of their life.  Surgeons have the opportunity to restore a person’s ability to eat, talk and live normally. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons do not only restore function and appearance—they restore lives. Playing a part in something like that can be worth all the time and money that went into training.

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