Orthodontists are specialist dentists who’ve undergone an additional three-year university degree in orthodontics where they learn how to diagnose, prevent and treat facial irregularities to correctly align teeth and jaws.

These days, more and more general dentists are offering orthodontic treatment. With systems such as clear aligners or some of the “social six” fast treatments apparently requiring less expertise than that of an orthodontist, it can be quite lucrative (the chief clinical instructor for Six Month Smiles calls his product “a gold mine for general dentists”.)

In addition, patients benefit from being able to use their trusted family dentist, have their regular dental needs attended to simultaneously, and perhaps save some money – as long as everything goes right.

Going to an orthodontist offers several key advantages:

  • They are the experts in straightening teeth and correcting bite. This is what they’ve been trained in for three years, and what they do day in, day out. That depth of knowledge and experience cannot be matched by a general dentist.
  • Successful treatment is contingent upon an accurate diagnosis and assessment of your teeth and jaw issues – knowledge and experience are critical for this.
  • An orthodontist has many tools – systems of braces – at their disposal, and they can choose the best one for your situation, which may change during treatment depending on how your teeth respond. The tool your dentist uses may not be the best one – or even a good one – for your situation.

The example of clear aligners is case in point. Figures from Dental Protection Limited, the professional indemnity insurers covering most dental practitioners in Australia, indicate that 80–90% of malpractice claims due to clear aligners involved dentists rather than orthodontists.

Dr Goonewardene explains, “If we have 100 patients with exactly the same problem, there will be an incredible variation in the way they respond. Orthodontists can adapt the treatment to the response, and revise the treatment as it goes. This is impossible to teach in the general dental curriculum, or in a weekend orthodontics course.”

Top tips

  1. Check the practitioner’s credentials – ask about their qualifications, experience and results for previous patients. You can look up a dental practitioner on the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website – it will tell you if they’re an orthodontist (specialist dentist) or general dentist.
  2. Ask for personal recommendations for a practitioner from friends, family and parents at your child’s school. You don’t need a referral for an orthodontist.
  3. Cost and treatment times vary depending on the complexity of the case.
  4. Get a second or third opinion if you’re not convinced about the diagnosis or treatment plan. The consultation may cost you $100 or more, but if you’re spending thousands, it’s important to be confident with the treatment.
  5. That quick, cheap fix might cause more problems later, requiring expensive undoing and more time in braces.
  6. What happens if you need to discontinue treatment – the practice closes down, or you move to a new city for example? Members of the Australia Society of Orthodontists are bound to a formula where payments are proportioned between the initiating orthodontist and a new orthodontist, so you won’t bear the full cost twice.
  7. Check your health insurance rebate – you’ll probably be surprised at how little is reimbursed.
  8. Look after your teeth. Follow instructions for brushing and flossing, and cleaning appliances; avoid sweet, sticky, hard foods and sugary drinks; keep up your regular periodontal appointments.
  9. Wear a mouthguard over your braces when playing contact sports and sports where you might inadvertently cop a blow to the face from a fall or object.
  10. Wear your retainer. Your teeth will continue to move throughout life, and without a retainer all the work from braces will come undone.
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