Consumer Information

What You Should Know About Dental Professionals and Their Services

What is a dentist? A dental hygienist? A dental assistant? What services do they perform?

Dentists restore and maintain dental health by diagnosing and treating, operating on, or prescribing for any disease, pain, injury, deformity or physical condition of the oral and maxillofacial area. In general, this means the teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas of the head and neck as long as the mouth is involved. Under the supervision of a dentist, dental hygienists provide treatment to prevent cavities and gum diseases.

Dentists and dental hygienists must be licensed by the Board of Regents to practice in New York State. As part of a dental delivery team, only dental hygienists and dentists may perform the following services:

  • apply topical medications and cavity-preventing agents, like sealants, fluorides and topical anesthetic agents to your teeth
  • place and remove periodontal dressings, temporary restorations
  • counsel you on the importance of good nutrition for oral health
  • perform such monitoring procedures as reviewing your health history, taking your blood pressure, and maintaining your dental chart
  • remove tartar (calculus) and plaque from your teeth below and above the gum line
  • polish teeth, including existing restorations
  • teach proper hygiene techniques for your teeth and gums and develop individual at-home oral hygiene programs
  • all services that may be performed by dental assistants

Dental assistants perform a variety of support functions; those who elect to become licensed as New York certified dental assistants may also perform these services as part of a dental delivery team under the direct, personal supervision of a dentist:

  • provide patient education
  • take preliminary medical histories and vital signs for review by a dentist
  • place and remove rubber dams, matrix bands, ligature ties and temporary separating devices
  • remove orthodontic arch wires, periodontal dressings, and temporary cement (not including temporary fillings)
  • select and prefit temporary crowns and orthodontic bands
  • take impressions for study casts, diagnostic casts, space maintainers, orthodontic appliances, and occlusal guards (guards that prevent grinding of the teeth)
  • remove stitches placed by a dentist
  • apply topical cavity-preventing and desensitizing agents to the teeth

Dental assistants who do not perform these services do not need a license.

What is a D.D.S. or a D.M.D.? What credentials do New York State licensed dentists have?

D.D.S. and D.M.D. are the usual doctoral degrees granted by American dental schools. They stand for Doctor of Dental Surgery and Doctor of Dental Medicine, respectively. There is no difference between the training provided by D.D.S. and D.M.D. programs.

New York licensed dentists have completed a four-year program in dentistry following at least two years of college; most have completed a bachelor's degree or equivalent before entering dental school. Graduates of non-U.S. programs have completed at least two additional years in an American dental school, and licensees practicing a specialty have additional education in that area. In addition, New York licensed dentists have passed a State-approved licensing examination or have completed a dental residency program. Once licensed, they are required to take continuing education courses regularly.

Does New York State license dentists in specialty areas of practice?

No. New York licensed dentists are authorized by their State license to treat any condition of the mouth within their scope of practice. Some dentists, however, choose to specialize in a particular area of practice and complete additional studies in a dental specialty; these professionals may limit their practices to their specialties.

Dental specialists may include these practitioners:

  • endodontists perform such procedures as root canals;
  • oral and maxillofacial radiologists use imaging technologies to diagnose diseases in the head and neck;
  • oral and maxillofacial surgeons diagnose and treat injuries and defects of the head, neck, face, and jaws (as long as the mouth is involved);
  • oral and maxillofacial pathologists study the causes and effects of diseases of the mouth;
  • orthodontists treat problems related to misaligned teeth;
  • pediatric dentists specialize in treating children;
  • periodontists diagnose and treat diseases of the gums;
  • prosthodontists replace missing teeth with fixed or removable substitutes such as dentures; and
  • public health dentists control dental diseases and promote good dental health in the community.

Can dentists provide sedation and general anesthesia?

New York licensed dentists must be specially certified to provide certain levels of sedation: conscious sedation, deep sedation, or general anesthesia. Discuss sedation needs, options and concerns with your dentist.

What is a R.D.H.? What credentials do New York State licensed dental hygienists have?

R.D.H. stands for Registered Dental Hygienist, the title commonly used by licensed dental hygienists. New York licensed dental hygienists have earned a certificate, associate's or bachelor's degree from an approved dental hygiene program after earning a hDecember 22, 2009 hygienists have passed a State-approved licensing examination and are required to take continuing education courses.

Can dental hygienists provide anesthesia or use other techniques to reduce discomfort?

With additional State certification, New York licensed dental hygienists may administer and monitor local infiltration anesthesia (for example, novocaine administered by needle) and nitrous oxide analgesia (an inhaled gas) during the practice of dental hygiene. These activities must be supervised personally by a licensed dentist.

What credentials do New York Certified Dental Assistants have?

New York Certified Dental Assistants have completed an approved one-year course of college study, or an approved alternate course of study, and have a high school diploma. They have also passed a State-approved licensing examination.

How can I locate a dentist?

Dental care may be provided only in dental offices, clinics, schools, hospitals and other related health care facilities; it may not be provided in commercial dental laboratories. Check with people you know for recommendations. You may also look under "Dentists" in the yellow pages of your phone book. Local professional societies may provide referrals, including emergency referrals. The State Board for Dentistry cannot refer you to a practitioner.

What records does my dentist maintain? Can anyone else get them?

Your patient record typically contains your case history, dental examination findings, x-ray films, lab findings, reports from other treatment professionals, and other treatment records. Your dentist must keep client records for six years or until the client turns 22, whichever is longer. Generally, your records are confidential unless you approve their release. Ask your professional about exceptions to this. If you want a copy of your records, provide your dentist with a written request. You may be charged a reasonable fee to offset the cost of providing copies.

What questions should individuals with disabilities ask about accessing services?

Ask such questions as whether the service location is physically accessible (curb cuts, ramps, restrooms, etc.) as well as whether there is a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD), parking for people with disabilities, or home-bound care.

In receiving dental services, you should:

  • answer all health-related questions completely and accurately
  • tell your dental health professional about all medications you are taking
  • ask questions about terminology and procedures you don't understand
  • authorize other health care providers to release your records to your dental professional
  • understand your dental plan's coverage before treatment begins

In turn, your dental professional should:

  • treat you in keeping with the Consumer's Bill of Rights
  • use infection control procedures that meet State and national standards, including the wearing of gloves
  • get your consent before undertaking any procedures

Verifying a New York license

You may verify licenses on this site.

In a dentist's office, school, or other facility not regulated by the State Department of Health, the dentist, dental hygienist, or certified dental assistant must display a current New York State registration certificate that lists the practitioner's name, address, and license number.

In hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other facilities regulated by the State Department of Health, licensees must wear identification badges listing their name and legal professional title.

Dental professionals must reregister every three years to practice in New York.

Professional Misconduct, Unlicensed Practice, and Filing a Misconduct Complaint

Visit our professional discipline page to learn more about how we address professional misconduct and unlicensed practice of the professions. To file a complaint about the professional conduct of a New York professional or about someone who is practicing without a license, e-mail or call 1-800-442-8106 or your regional office.

Last Updated: December 22, 2009