DDS or DMD Degree: What’s the Difference?

by Simon W. Rosenberg, D.M.D.
based on some research by Kimberly A. Loos, D.D.S. and Brad J. Loos


Many people, including dentists, are confused over the use of the D.D.S. and D.M.D. degrees. Today some dental schools grant a D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery) degree while others prefer to award the D.M.D. (Doctor of Dental Medicine) degree instead. The training the dentists receive is very similar but the name of the degree granted is different.

Ancient medicine was divided into two groups: 1) the surgery group that dealt with treating diseases and injuries using instruments; and 2) the medicine group that dealt with healing diseases using medicine. Originally there was only the D.D.S. degree, which stands for Doctor of Dental Surgery. It was given by independent schools of dentistry that were more like trade or apprenticeship schools and in the beginning were not affiliated with any university.

The Harvard Factor

This all changed in 1867 when Harvard University added a dental school. Harvard University only grants degrees in Latin. Harvard did not adopt the D.D.S. or Doctor of Dental Surgery degree because the Latin translation was Chirurgae Dentium Doctoris or C.D.D. The people at Harvard thought that C.D.D. was cumbersome. A Latin scholar was consulted. The scholar suggested the ancient Medicinae Doctor be prefixed with Dentariae. This is how the D.M.D. or “Dentariae Medicinae Doctor” degree was started. (Congratulations! Now you probably know more Latin than most dentists!)

The Current Picture

At the turn of the 20th century, there were 57 dental schools in the U.S. but only Harvard and Oregon awarded the D.M.D. In 1989, 23 of the 66 North American dental schools awarded the D.M.D. I think about half the Canadian dental schools now award the D.M.D. degree. In the Northeast, Tufts (my alma mata), Harvard, Boston Univ., Univ of Connecticut, New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry, Pennsylvania Univ., and Temple Univ. all issue D.M.D. degrees to their dental school graduates.

The American Dental Association (A.D.A.) is aware of the public confusion surrounding these degrees. The A.D.A. has tried on several occasions to reduce this confusion. Several sample proposals include: 1) eliminate the D.M.D. degree; 2) eliminate the D.D.S. degree; or 3) eliminate both degrees and invent a brand new degree that every dental school will agree to use. Unfortunately, this confusion may be with us for a long time. When emotional factors like school pride and tradition arise, it is difficult to find a compromise.

The California Dental Association (CDA) debated the differences between dental degrees during 1997 and could not form a consensus. In places like New York where D.D.S. is the most common degree, some dentists with D.M.D. degrees prefer to use the D.D.S. as their degree on their stationary or when they advertise. These dentists argue that in their areas the public understands that D.D.S. means “dentist”. Indeed, many entities such as the New York and California State Boards of Dental Examiners communicates with all licensed dentists as D.D.S., even if they originally graduated with a D.M.D. or other similar dental degree. Some D.D.S. dentists object to D.M.D. dentists using D.D.S., mostly out of a desire to cut down on competition. Is this an educational or equality issue?

In my experience, where I have only used D.M.D. since receiving it from Tufts University in Boston, there are a group of patients that think the D.M.D. is a better degree. Some patients think that it is a variation of the M.D. medical degree or that the D.M.D. degree is “superior” in some way because it is given by what they consider to be better universities — either Ivy League or the more elite colleges such as Tufts, Harvard, BU, Penn, etc. Generally, it is the state schools such as SUNY at Buffalo and at Stony Brook, or dental schools that started as independent schools that later affiliated with universities, such as NYU’s and Columbia’s dental schools, that give D.D.S. degrees.

In academic and political circles, advocates for the D.D.S. say it represents the “Doctor of Dental Surgery” aspect of treatment since most of dental treatment involves the cutting or removing of tooth, gum or jaw bone tissue before restoring it. D.M.D. advocates emphasize the so-called Medical model where emphasis is on information gathering and diagnosis before treatment is planned. In that approach to dental care the patient’s medical history, general health and the reasons the patient has sought care is gathered. Then all of the soft tissues of the head and neck are examined to identify abnormalities such as oral cancer, local oral pathology or oral signs of a systemic disease such as diabetes, blood disease, etc. Following this there is an assessment of the periodontal (gum) condition and the teeth are examined for decay, functional bite, esthetics as well as their orthodontic and jaw relation. All of these factors are considered and the dentist and patient act as “partners” in determining the treatment to be done and the priorities and treatment sequences.

Who’s “Right” in this argument about D.M.D. versus D.D.S.?

In my opinion, neither side.

Dentistry today demands proper diagnosis that takes into consideration all of your patient and dental factors and plans treatment geared to your desires and financial realities. All dental schools now emphasize excellence in both diagnosis and clinical skills and I think most dentists practice with that as their goals as well. You need to choose a dentist whom you feel has done a good job of examining you with all of the tools of modern dentistry, has an office with proper infection control and a “quality care” environment and whom you feel comfortable and confident that their dental team can provide you with the level of dental care you need and want.

I hope this article provides some historical and current details regarding these equivalent dental degrees.