Forensic dentistry (odontology) is a vital branch of forensic science that involves that application of dental science to the identification of unknown human remains and bite marks, using both physical and biological dental evidence.
Scope of Work
Forensic dentists deal with a range of medicolegal problems. Identification of the human remains of natural disasters, terrorist activities, and missing and unknown persons is a central activity. This may involve participation in autopsy examinations at the request of law enforcement, coroners, or medical examiners at the local or state level. The postmortem dental examination of human remains usually involves charting dental and cranial features, radiographic (x-ray) documentation of these features, the application of these findings to investigations by law enforcement to identify the missing or unknown person.
Dental identification plays a particularly important role in the identification of victims of catastrophic events where there are massive numbers of casualties such as airplane crashes, fires, floods, earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.
The identification of unknown persons may start at a disaster or crime scene or during the autopsy examination at the request of law enforcement, coroners, or medical examiners at the local or state level. Using both physical and biological dental evidence, the postmortem examination and x-rays. Information gathered during this examination along with cranial features, if available, is documented in a written report. This information is either used by law enforcement to assist in the investigation and/or coded into a computer identification program that contains both antemortem and postmortem dental records. The computer compares these records in an attempt to match the unknown with samples, records or photographs.
Another important area of forensic dentistry is bite mark analysis in cases of assault, rape, and /or homicide. This is demanding work with rigorous standards requiring special training and experience. Inexperienced odontologists usually consult senior odontologists to serve as mentors when embarking on actual casework.
During bite mark analysis, the odontologist also may collect trace salivary evidence for later DNA profiling and matching.
Digital imaging methods may be used in comparing dental evidence from a homicide suspect (http://www.forensic.to/webhome/bitemarks/)
Another activity is injury analysis that determines the presence and extent of dental injuries or physical neglect in an adult, children, and elderly abuse cases.
Odontologists also give expert testimony in civil litigation involving dental issues such as personal injury law, workers compensation, professional malpractice, and disputes regarding aspects of the dentist/patient relationship.
Education and Training
It is vital that a person interested in forensic odontology be properly educated and trained. A doctor of dental science (DDS) degree is a basic; however, a traditional dental education does not provide the curriculum and experience that is required to function in this field. There are also opportunities for other dental professionals in the field as well.
The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) is the forum for forensic dental lectures, demonstrations, and practical courses that valuable educational experiences. The AAFS affiliated American Board of Forensic Odontology (www.abfo.org) serves as the highly regarded credentialing body for dentists who have satisfied experience and training requirements to sit for the challenging ABFO examination.
The American Society of Forensic Odontology (www.asfo.org) meets annually at the AAFS annual meeting. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (www.afip.org) offers week-long dental courses in odontology and pathology. The University of Texas, San Antonio (www.utsa.edu) provides a biennial program and a forensic Dentistry and the New York County Dental Society offer introductory graduate master's and PhD education is available in Canada (www.boldlab.org) and teaching institutions in Europe and Australia. Basic courses in Forensic science and medicolegal death is necessary to participate in forensic investigations.
The objective of these courses and advanced training is to conduct through scientific and systematic scene investigations through use of approved techniques and methods. The best training come from working with an experienced odontologist in a real situation.
Online access to odontology information is available at www.forensic.to/forensic
There are many opportunities for forensic odontologists to have formal appointments or consulting relationships with coroners, medical examiners offices, state and local government agencies, and branches of the military. Reimbursement is on a fee-for-service or contractual basis. Private consultations are possible with insurance companies and legal firms.
It is common for court qualified forensic odontologists to testify in criminal and civil courtrooms. Expert testimony in civil and criminal litigation involves dental issues such as personal injury law, workers compensation, professional malpractice, disputes regarding aspects of the dentist-patient relationship, and identification of bite marks in criminal cases.
Once a commitment is made to enter this field, the dental investigator needs to be current in the most accurate methods available, be aware of ethical values and conflicts, and possess the dedication to render assistance in a timely and professional manner.