What is Forensic Dentistry?

A forensic dentist is an informal title for a forensic odontologist, a medical professional who is trained in odontology, a branch of forensic science that deals with the application of dental science in the identification of unknown human remains and bite marks.  Forensic dentists use both physical and biological dental evidence to solve a number of medicolegal problems, including identifying human remains that result from crimes, terroristic activities, and natural disasters.

Forensic dentists are typically employed by the coroner or medical examiner at the local or state level. Their work often involves a number of postmortem dental examinations, including charting dental and cranial features, employing digital imaging methods, and x-ray documentation. These forensic professionals then record their findings through detailed reports.

Forensic dentists have played very important roles identifying victims of major catastrophes, such as natural disasters, airplane crashes, and terrorist activities. These professionals were integral in identifying victims of such tragedies as the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the World Trade Center attacks and the crashes of Pan Am Flight 103 and American Airlines Flight 587.

Another vital area of forensic dentistry is bite mark analysis, which is often used in violent crimes, such as assault, rape and homicide. Forensic dentists, in addition to studying bite marks, may also collect trace salivary evidence that is used for DNA profiling and matching. Forensic dentists may also conduct injury analysis on dental injuries as a result of physical neglect in children, adults, and the elderly.

Outside of the autopsy room of the medical examiner or coroner’s office, forensic dentists may be asked to provide expert testimony in criminal hearings.

The Significance of Odontology in Forensic Science

Forensic odontology jobs involve the identification of deceased individuals based upon the unique features of their dental structure. Forensic odontology is often used when identification through other means, such as fingerprints, is not available due to the decomposition or breakdown of the deceased.

Forensic odontology relies on scientific methods as they relate to the teeth and jaw. This may include the study of dental anatomy and the interpretation of radiographs, pathology, dental materials, and developmental abnormalities. Because the teeth are some of the strongest elements of the human body, odontology may be performed even when the body has been destroyed.

Due to the importance odontology plays in everything from criminal convictions to the identification of missing persons, the American Board of Forensic Odontology was created in 1976 to establish credentials for this increasingly significant field of forensic science. There are currently 86 Diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Odontology.

Education and Training for Forensic Dentists

As a doctor of dentistry, a forensic dentist must possess a Doctor of Dental Science (DDS) degree. However, beyond that, forensic dentists must achieve training specific to the field of forensic science.

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Many forensic dentists receive the bulk of their training through courses, lectures, and demonstrations offered by the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). Other notable training and fellowship programs in odontology are offered through the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology; the University of Texas, San Antonio; the New York Society of Forensic Dentistry; and the New York County Dental Society.

Many forensic dentists also receive training through basic courses in forensic science and medicolegal death investigation.

Professional Certification for Forensic Dentists

Because of the need for forensic dentists to achieve training specific to the field of odontology, professional certification through the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) is commonplace, as it allows forensic dentists to demonstrate their knowledge of forensic science and forensic odontology.

Candidates who want to achieve certification through the AAFS must:

  • Possess a DDS, DMD or an equivalent dental degree from an accredited institution
  • Have attended at least 4 annual meetings of a national forensic/forensic dental organization
  • Have participated in at least 2 annual programs of a national forensic/forensic dental organization
  • Be currently active and affiliated with a medical/legal agency such as a medical examiner/coroner’s office, mass disaster team, insurance agency, or law enforcement agency for at least 2 years
  • Have observed at least 5 medicolegal autopsies attested to by the pathologist in charge
  • Have performed at least 30 legitimate forensic dental cases (will be 35 as of June 2014)
  • Have performed at least 20 human identification cases, 15 of which resulted in a positive identification

Upon meeting the minimum requirements for certification, candidates must take and pass a comprehensive examination, which includes the following topics:

  • Demonstrating forensic odontology foundation skills
  • Gathering, documenting, and maintaining evidence
  • Demonstrating knowledge of identification
  • Participating in mass disaster management
  • Demonstrating knowledge of bite marks
  • Demonstrate knowledge of human abuse
  • Demonstrating knowledge of craniofacial, anatomy, anthropology, and pathology
  • Demonstrating professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities

Salary Expectations for Forensic Dentists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dentists earned a median annual salary of $146,290 in May 2010, with the top 10 percent earning more than $166,400. A recent job posting for a forensic dentist showed a salary range of $80,236 and $125,875.

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