There's an old saying that goes "if you smile, the whole world smiles with you." In the United States, a regular visit to a dentist can keep you smiling. The nation's approximately 152,000 dentists diagnose, treat, and prevent tooth and gum problems. Most fill cavities, straighten teeth and repair broken ones. Some have specialties - like performing surgery on gums and bones around the teeth. Many even use advanced, relatively painless technology like lasers. VOA's Andrew Baroch recently visited Dr. Daniel Babiec in Alexandria, Virginia, who was attending to one middle-aged patient in need of a cleaning and then laser surgery.

"Basically, what happened is she had a tooth here, and a crown, but part of the tooth broke," said Dr. Babiec. "In a sense, what we need to do is create more tooth so that we can do a new crown. The way we're going to do that is by moving, or eliminating, some of the gum tissue around the tooth, the net effect being a longer tooth and something to work with."

Baroch: "And you're going to now do what, Dr.?"
Babiec: "Okay, I'm going to use the laser now and trim the gum tissue back away from where it is right now.

Dr. Babiec picks up a hose, at the head of which is his laser. It's the size of a toothbrush, actually.

Babiec:: "Sounds like a popcorn popper."
Baroch:: "How's it feel ma'am?"
Hospadar: "I feel fine."

The patient, Cathy Hospadar, is also visiting Dr. Babiec for some final touches on cosmetic dentistry.

Baroch: "What procedure did you have done here?"
Hopspadar: "I had the beginnings for my veneer, my porcelain veneers today. Now, I have a temporary on the top teeth. I'll get the final product in about two and a half weeks."
Baroch:"What is a porcelain veneer?"
Hopspadar: "It is a covering, a finish over the teeth, that makes them shaped better, perfectly in alignment, much better than the natural teeth were."
Baroch: "Looks nice."
Hopspadar: "Thank you. I'm happy with it."
Baroch: "How much did it cost?"
Hopspadar: "OOOOh! I'm trying to put that off. We'll probably get to that later. I think it's pretty reasonable. Dr. Babiec has always kept up with the latest state of the art of technology. I've been with him since I was a kid. He had himself and maybe two people. So I've known him forever. He's a great doctor."

Like Dr. Babiec, almost all dentists work in private practice. All of them need a license to practice. But first, a candidate has to graduate from college and then pass an exam called the Dental Admissions Test to be eligible for dental school.

Dr. Babiec recalls some of the things he had to study in four-year dental school. "Your early years are [spent studying] basic sciences," he said. "You're going to be studying biochemistry, anatomy, histology, which is the study of cells and tissues. The last two years of dental school are heavily into the clinical and dental arts: how to recognize the disease of the oral cavity, how to treat the disease of the oral cavity, whether it's mechanical, pharmacological, surgical - whatever. So those would be the dental arts: I mean, fillings, crowns, extractions, periodontal [gum]surgery, oral surgery."

Once out of dental school, the last hurdle for the aspiring dentist is what else? More exams. The American Dental Association's Commission on Dental Accreditation administers a series of exams graduates need to pass to get a license.

All the effort literally pays off in the end. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average annual salary of a dentist is about $130,000. Dr. Daniel Babiec runs a multi-million dollar practice, overseeing a staff of about 10 assistants, including dental hygienists whose sole job it is to simply clean the patients' teeth - leaving the more complicated cases to him.

Like me. At the conclusion of my interview with Dr. Babiec, he seated me in a recliner under a bright lamp and had me open my mouth wide. I hadn't had my teeth checked in five years - and here he was using another one of his advanced lasers one that hunts for the slightest sign of cavities.

Baroch: "If I might: you're holding a red-tipped, what looks like a pencil or pen, but really there's a laser at the end of that right? And you're sticking it in the areas between my teeth."
Babiec: "I'm following all the grooves of your teeth - tracing them basically, not sticking them into anything. It doesn't hurt. It's totally pain free. It takes a lot of subjectivity out of diagnosis. You're going to get a reading that suggests decay or not. Or you'll look at a tooth which looks perfectly health, but, in fact, there is decay, but it's very small."

The laser pinpointed the makings of two cavities. Dr. Daniel Babiec had pinpointed my habit of procrastination when it comes to visiting the dentist.