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Oral Pathologist


It is important to understand the basic science behind diseases of the mouth, neck and facial area. Oral pathologists adapt methods and disciplines of the basic sciences such as gross and microscopic anatomy, microbiology, physiology, genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, and apply them to clinical dentistry. An oral pathologist specializes in the identification and management of diseases affecting the bone and soft tissues of the mouth and facial anatomy surrounding the mouth.

Using diagnostic techniques, they identify abnormal conditions involving the oral and perioral tissues, and diagnose and treat to improve or maintain the patient's health. Oral pathology involves the clinical and microscopic examination of tissues suspected to be abnormal or pathologic. Frequently, consultation and biopsy services are provided to dentists and physicians throughout a wide geographic region.

Oral pathologists have completed advanced laboratory training and much of their work involves identifying disease at the cellular level. It is a science that investigates the causes, processes and effects of these diseases. The practice of oral pathology includes research and diagnosis of diseases using clinical, radiographic, microscopic, biochemical or other examinations. They often work closely with general dentists and specialists who are typically the primary care givers

On a visit to an oral pathologist, they will examine the head and neck region of a patient in order to determine a working diagnosis of the patient's problem. A biopsy is not always needed for the diagnosis but a pathologist may order or suggest medical tests and imaging procedures for a more definitive diagnosis.

A biopsy is a two-part process. The first part involves the oral pathologist removing a sample of the suspicious tissue (bone or soft tissue or teeth) from the patient. In the second step, the pathologist processes the tissue to create a microscopic slide, from which is made the definitive diagnosis.

Once the tests are complete and all pertinent information is obtained, the oral pathologist will make a final diagnosis and provide an appropriate treatment protocol for the patient. Many oral pathologists will also review radiographs or other imaging scans sent to them by their biopsy and radiology service contributors, past students or other health professionals. The radiologist will then offer a suggested diagnosis or management protocol to the oral pathologist.
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  Interests and Skills  
Oral pathologists must have good health, eyesight, and good finger and manual dexterity. They must have a gentle, delicate touch and a good degree of mechanical aptitude and ability. They require great interpersonal skills, and can communicate with all of their patients, trying to make them feel more comfortable. They also have the ability to understand and handle many different types and ages of people. Successful oral pathologists enjoy doing precise work with tools and equipment, and helping people treat diseases of the mouth.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Consult with patients about their teeth, gums, necks, facial features and surrounding tissue to plan appropriate surgical treatment
  • Study the nature of these mouth diseases at the cellular and molecular level
  • Perform biopsies on patients and analyze the results
  • Educate patients to help to prevent dental diseases
  • Perform oral procedures and other maxillofacial treatments
  • Refer patients to radiologists and oral surgeons
  • Supervise dental technicians, dental assistants and other staff
  • Most oral pathologists work eight-hour days during the week, but in order to meet patient time constraints, some may also work weekends and evenings. An on-call schedule may sometimes be a necessary aspect of this speciality. Trauma and other emergency situations necessitate prompt emergency care by an oral pathologist. Oral pathology can be a high stress occupation due to working with people who are in pain and are often afraid of them.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Most oral pathologists work in clinical settings, such as hospitals, dental clinics, outpatient surgical centers, public health facilities, universities or own their own private practices. Directly upon graduation, they may engage in private practice, however, these days, partnerships with established dental practitioners and group practices are becoming increasingly popular. Better opportunities exist in smaller towns and city centers where the market has yet to be saturated. Some oral pathologists work for government health services.

  Long Term Career Potential  
A broad range of career options is available including private practice, hospital practice, teaching, and research. Otherwise, since it takes so many years of school to become an oral pathologist, once established, they usually stay within the industry and move into more supervisory positions. Oral pathologists are usually affiliated with local and regional hospitals.

  Educational Paths  
Oral pathologists have a long educational road ahead of them after high school (anywhere from 10 to 14 years of school). They are required have a bachelor of science degree, or at least two years of undergraduate education along with passing an entrance exam to dental school. The next step is to obtain a degree from a recognized dental program. Then oral pathologists must take a four-year program in oral pathology to receive a certificate and/or master's degree in oral pathology upon completion of the program. An additional two to four years may be spent obtaining a joint MD or a PhD degree depending on individual career goals.

Oral pathologists must be licensed to practice dentistry and oral pathology. Each region has a licensing body that establishes regulations and requirements for the licensure of general practitioners and specialists within the jurisdiction. Contact the regulatory authority in your jurisdiction to obtain detailed information about licensure, registration, and fees.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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