As with other professions that impact the health and well-being of others, the dental profession is tightly regulated by each state. Anyone who wants to work as a dentist in any state must first receive the legal authority to do so by getting a state dental license. State license requirements differ slightly, but all states make it a crime to practice dentistry without a license.
Every state has its own laws that define what dentistry is, and while each may differ slightly, they encompass the same kind of activities.
Dentistry is generally defined as evaluating, diagnosing, treating, or preventing any medical condition or disorder related to the mouth, the oral cavity, or medical conditions related to it. Anyone who performs any kind of dental service—ranging from attempting to diagnose dental conditions to using surgical procedures to cure or correct dental problems—must have a state dental license to do so legally.
It's enough to commit the unlawful practice of dentistry simply by representing to the public that you're a dentist or are qualified to perform dental procedures.
For example, you can be convicted of unlawfully practicing dentistry if you rent office space for dentistry and advertise your services as a dentist. It's also illegal to tell other people you're a dentist and offer them your services or advice, or to otherwise advertise yourself as a dentist, or other dental professional if you're not one.
Some state laws include dental hygiene in their definition of what constitutes the unlicensed practice of dentistry. Other states have separate laws that apply to dental hygienists specifically. Regardless of how states categorize the crime, practicing dental hygiene without the required state license is also a crime.
Dental hygiene is defined as performing things like removing deposits or accretions from teeth, removing oral sutures, providing dental patients with education, applying topical medications, using x-ray films, or performing other tasks in support of dental care provided by a licensed dentist.
While dentists can form various types of partnerships or similar business structures with other dentists or medical professionals, they can't form corporations in many states. This is because the corporate structure would allow non-dentist professionals to have positions of power in the corporation (for example, a businessperson with an MBA could be a corporate director). The concern is that these non-dentists could unduly influence or interfere with the practice of dentistry.
Also, while dentists in some states are allowed form professional corporations, they can't form corporations in which they share profits with non-dentist owners or stockholders.
The penalties for practicing dentistry without a differ significantly between states. Depending on the extent of the violation and the state where it occurs, a conviction can bring any of the following consequences:
All states require aspiring dentists to submit a license application that includes information about any prior criminal activity. State rules about prior criminal activity differ, but being convicted of a felony can make obtaining a license difficult.
In some states, licensing requirements permit a state board to deny an applicant a dental license (or hygienist license) if they have a prior felony conviction. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that a felony conviction will result in an automatic disqualification. In many states, the dental licensing board has the option to deny or grant the license based on its judgment.
Some of the things the board might consider are the type of crime that was committed, the circumstances of the case, when the crime occurred, what the applicant has done since then, and any other factors that might help it determine if the applicant is suitable.
If you're charged with or being investigated for practicing without a license (even if you just let your license lapse or expire), you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area right away. You have specific legal rights throughout the entire criminal justice process, and if you don't seek legal advice, you can unwittingly damage your case. A local defense lawyer should be able to guide you through the criminal justice process and provide you with advice based on their knowledge of your state's laws, and their experience with local judges and prosecutors.