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The goal of all dental care is to maintain or improve patients' oral health. Oral health has been discovered to be closely linked to a person's overall health and well-being. In the early years of dentistry, dentists were most concerned with treating patients with tooth decay and abscesses. Today, most dentists perform a mix of preventive care and treatment, with the goal of preventing serious dental issues and treating disease as early as possible to keep it from becoming more troublesome.

Over the years, the American Dental Association (ADA), an association of dentists in the United States, has recommended specific methods for maintaining good oral health, including the number of times patients should brush and how often they should visit their dentist for cleanings, X-rays, and examinations. These are the dentist's primary methods for maintaining their patients' oral health.

The American Dental Association reports it has more than 163,000 members as of 2019, in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) says there were 155,000 dentist jobs in the United States in 2018. Dentists generated nearly $138 billion in revenue in 2019, according to IBISWorld, which noted this figure had increased 2.5 percent annually since 2014.

The earliest forms of dentistry can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, from archaeologists' evidence of dental treatment from thousands of years ago. This evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians treated toothache and swollen gums in the 16th century B.C. Around 1250 B.C., Greek physician Aesculapius became the first recorded supporter of tooth extraction.

Dentistry as it is more commonly practiced today, however, was first developed by the French dentist Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, who wrote Le Chirurgien Dentiste (The Surgeon Dentist) in 1728. He also developed the first orthodontic treatment methods and devised techniques for making dentures.

The most common business model in the dental industry is the independent practitioner with his or her own group of assistants, hygienists, and office personnel. Large corporate groups are also common, as are dental specialists. Specialty areas include dental surgeons, pediatric dentists, orthodontists, and periodontists (dentists who specialize in the treatment of gum disease).

One trend that began in the 21st century and has continued to increase is a rise in the number of women dentists. According to the ADA, from 2001 to 2018, the total number of active licensed women dentists has gone from 26,870 to 64,434. More than 32 percent of dentists were women in 2018, up from only 16 percent in 2001. Most employees in the dental industry are dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and office workers.