Dental hygienists are responsible for providing preventative care for dental patients. They differ from dental assistants in the type of care they are authorized to provide. Whereas dental assistants fill a primarily in administrative role with some patient interaction, hygienists work closely alongside the dentist during intensive procedures and in some cases are allowed to perform more routine procedures, such as a teeth cleaning, without the assistance of the dentist.
Job outlook is generally quite good for dental hygienists, although most only work part time. The profession does have both education and licensing requirements, which vary from State to State. However, the flexibility and high average salary for dental hygienists make the career path attractive for many individuals.
Dental hygienists fill an important role in the dentist’s office. Although they do work alongside the dentist, dental hygienists usually perform routine dental procedures and diagnostic tests without doctor supervision.
They are responsible for performing procedures such as removing deposits, plaque, and stains from teeth as well as examining gums for signs of disease. In addition, a hygienist will apply fluoride or sealant solutions to freshly cleaned teeth and possibly take x-rays for the dentist. Hygienists are also responsible for teaching patients about proper dental health and oral hygiene. They may be required to show patients how to both brush and floss their teeth properly after completing procedures.
State law dictates what other tasks a dental hygienist may perform. In certain States, hygienists may be allowed to administer anesthetics, create temporary fillings, and remove sutures, among other duties. In some cases, hygienists might prepare clinical and laboratory tests for the dentist to use for diagnosis.
Training and Education Requirements
Dental hygienists are required to earn a degree or certificate from an accredited dental hygiene school and hold a State license in order to practice.
The most common degree earned by hygienists is a 2-year associates degree, although it is possible to earn a bachelors or master’s degree as well.
Classes in dental hygiene programs are usually conducted in laboratory, clinical and classrooms settings. General coursework includes basic anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, microbiology, nutrition, and histology. More specific coursework covers the basics of dentistry, such as periodontology, dental materials, and hygiene. Students will learn how to safely operate dental tools such as the hand and rotary instruments used to clean teeth. Depending on the length of the course, the subjects will be covered more. The best dental hygiene programs will prepare students to immediately sit for their licensing exams immediately following graduation.
It is important to attend an accredited school in order to be eligible for a State license. The Commission on Dental Accreditation has a list of schools that meet their standards for dental hygiene education.
Dental Hygienist Salary and Wages
Dental hygienists enjoy high wages and excellent job security. The exact amount of compensation depends on a few factors. In general, dental hygienists who work in urban areas with higher living costs will earn more than those in more rural areas. Work experience, employment setting, and level of education are also important when determining salary. Dental hygienists may be paid on an hourly basis due to the fact that they often work part time. Even so, the average salary for dental hygienists is typically quite high.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median annual salary for a dental hygienist in 2008 was $66,570. The top 10% earned more than $90,000 per year, while the bottom 10% earned less than $44,180.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
In addition to their high salary, dental hygienists also report receiving some form of employment benefits, such as paid vacation, sick leave, and health plans.
Dental hygienists do not need to seek certification as they are required to hold a license from the State in order to practice. Requirements for licensing vary from State to State, however almost all States require that hygienists hold a degree from an accredited school and pass a 2-part examination.
The first part of the examination is entirely written and is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA). This exam covers the basic principle of dental hygiene and is considered acceptable by all States for licensing. The second part of the exam is clinical and is administered on a local level. Many States also require an exam on the legal aspects of dental hygiene in order to gain licensure.
Alabama is the only State that does not require passage of the ADA exam for licensing. The State instead requires that dental hygienists complete on-the-job training, take specific courses, and pass a State administered dental hygiene exam.
The main professional association for dental hygienists is the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA). The ADHA was founded in 1923 in order to promote the interests of dental hygienists in the United States. The organization is headquartered in Chicago and currently has over 150,000 members with 350 local chapters in all 50 states. The ADHA has several publications specifically geared for the dental hygienist. The most prominent is the Journal of Dental Hygiene is a scientific, research-based publication that supports the dissemination of new knowledge in the hygienist community.