Dental Hygienist Career Information
A trip to the dentist's office can feel like a positive event or a negative one. The nature of the experience is often related to not only the health of your teeth, but also to the quality of the care delivered by skilled pros like dental hygienists. If you think you might want to work on the front lines of oral health care, this article can provide you with an in-depth look at the answers to questions you should be asking.
What is a Dental Hygienist?
First, it's important to understand the basics. After all, you don't want to begin your journey with any misconceptions. So, what is a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists are health care professionals responsible for cleaning patients' teeth and checking for signs of various oral health concerns, from gingivitis to oral cancers. Dental hygienists also provide patients with education on the importance of oral health and strategies for maintaining good oral hygiene.
The role of a dental hygienist is important for a variety of reasons, most notably for providing care that can prevent future health problems for their patients and costly draws on the health care system at large. Prevalent ailments linked to oral health include everything from heart disease to diabetes to premature births. Plus, dental hygienists are often able to detect signs of other illnesses (such as HIV, oral cancer, osteoporosis, and eating disorders) through clinical examinations.
What is the Difference Between a Dental Hygienist and a Dental Assistant?
Although dental assistants and dental hygienists both play vital roles within the dental field, the two occupations are very different from each other. Here are a few points that can help you distinguish which is which:
- Perform both independent and supervised clinical tasks
- Require formal education and must be licensed to practice
- Represent a more senior-level role in the dental field
- Focus on preventive care and patient education
- Can form their own dental hygiene practices and contract their services
- Directly assist dentists with clinical procedures
- Handle a variety of administrative tasks
- Do not necessarily require certification
- Represent an entry-level role within a dental office
- Typically earn less than dental hygienists
If you want to learn more, this dental assistant career information article provides further details.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Job Description Usually Consist Of?
As a dental hygienist, you could be responsible for a broad range of tasks related to patient care and education. The breadth of duties that a dental hygienist can perform varies from state to state, and some tasks may require further training and certification. Additionally, some of these duties require authorization from a dentist whereas others call for direct supervision. This all depends, however, on individual state regulations. So it's a good idea to look into the specific requirements of your state for more detailed information.
The duties that form a dental hygienist job description generally consist of:
- Recording the medical and dental histories of patients
- Conducting head, neck, and oral examinations and checking blood pressure
- Screening patients for indicators of systematic illnesses
- Removing plaque and calculus (tarter) from teeth through scaling and root planing
- Cleaning and polishing teeth using a variety of manual and power tools, such as ultrasonic devices, air polishers, and curettes
- Applying pit and fissure sealants and fluorides for protection, as well as antimicrobial agents
- Providing patients with instruction on proper brushing and flossing techniques, toothbrush selection, and the impact of nutrition on oral health
- Explaining procedures to patients and ensuring that they are comfortable during examinations and cleanings
- Completing dental charting and other documentation for patient records
- Performing periodontal probing and pocket depth assessment
- Providing the clinical and laboratory testing results that are required by other health care professionals
- Relaying findings to dentists and providing referrals to other health care professionals
- Performing emergency medical and dental care when necessary
The duties that tend to vary by state and regional regulations include:
- Performing patient assessments and making diagnoses
- Developing, implementing, and evaluating patient treatment plans
- Administering local anesthetics and nitrous oxide
- Taking, processing, and interpreting dental x-rays
- Creating impressions of patients' teeth for examination and assessment
- Applying cavity liners or bases
- Placing, carving, and finishing amalgam restorations
- Placing and finishing composite restorations
- Placing and removing temporary crowns and restorations
- Fabricating temporary crowns
- Placing and removing sutures and periodontal dressings
On top of these responsibilities, dental hygienists can sometimes be required to carry out administrative tasks such as filling out paperwork. Also, if they contract out their services, dental hygienists have the added job of maintaining supplies, preparing invoices, and handling other business and entrepreneurial matters.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Dental Hygienist?
Becoming a dental hygienist typically requires either a two-year associate's degree in dental hygiene or a four-year bachelor's degree. Other program types do exist but are much less common. It's also important to note that even though associate's degree programs may only last two years, many require certain college-level course credits as a prerequisite before you can enroll.
If you dream of advancing in this field, then knowing how to become a dental hygienist is just the beginning. Becoming a dental hygiene instructor, researcher, or public policy maker generally requires, at minimum, earning a master's degree after you've acquired plenty of experience.
In order to ensure you choose a quality dental hygienist program, you should double-check that:
- The program is offered by a school that possesses accreditation from a recognized accrediting body, such as the American Dental Association's Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
- The curriculum includes comprehensive theoretical and hands-on training that focuses on general education, biomedical sciences, dental sciences, and dental hygiene science
- The program contains the necessary clinical components to meet the licensing requirements for your state
- The school provides modern training facilities, including clinical stations for each student, radiography units and viewing areas, safety and infection control equipment, and laboratory areas with proper lighting and ventilation
- The school offers access to support services, such as reference materials, skeletal and anatomic models, professional journals, and other instructional aids
Are There Any Dental Hygiene Prerequisites for Getting into School?
In order to enroll in a program for dental hygiene, prerequisites that you will need to meet are likely to include the following:
- High school diploma or GED equivalent
- High school math, science, and English courses
Additionally, some schools may expect you to:
- Pass an entrance exam
- Obtain prerequisite college credits
- Complete a personal interview
- Take a dexterity test
- Submit an essay
What are the Typical Dental Hygienist Requirements for Licensing?
Each state has its own dental hygienist requirements and conditions for licensing. Upon graduating from an accredited program, you first must successfully pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Then you must pass whatever other clinical or written examinations that your state or region requires in order to become a registered dental hygienist (or licensed dental hygienist in Indiana).
Other licensure requirements can include things like letters of recommendation from dentists or registered dental hygienists, a background check, high school or post-secondary transcripts, medical screening results, and a personal interview.
Additionally, most states have stipulations for continuing education throughout the duration of your career, which are in place to ensure that you stay up-to-date on current technologies, infection control practices, and advancements in the field. These requirements usually need to be met on an annual or bi-annual basis, but they differ from state to state.
You will also need to keep your CPR certification current in case of any medical emergencies you may encounter on the job.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?
Most dental hygienist programs last from two to four years. When you graduate, you can be eligible to take the national and state/regional examinations. Once you meet these requirements, apply for licensing, and receive approval, you will be considered a registered dental hygienist (RDH).
How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Program Cost?
Dental hygienist programs vary in cost depending on location and type of school. But, according to national statistics, the average totals for tuition and fees are:*
- $30,114 for an associate's degree
- $45,485 for a bachelor's degree
- $24,440 for a master's degree (this is on top of the cost of a bachelor's degree)
Plus, according to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, you can expect to spend a further $1,000 on the cost of certification, which typically includes application and examination fees, as well as professional liability insurance.
What Can I Learn in a Dental Hygienist School?
A dental hygienist school can teach you about a wide range of subjects, such as:
- General science and health
- Chemistry and biology
- Dental science
- Oral pathology
- Head and neck anatomy (orofacial complex)
- Tooth morphology (tooth identification)
- Periodontology (study of gum disease)
- Pharmacology and pain management
- Oral embryology and histology (dental development, structure, and function)
- Clinical practice and patient care
- Radiographic imaging
- Medical and dental emergency care
- Oral health education
- Infection and hazard control management
- Community dental health
- Child, adolescent, adult, special needs, and geriatric dental care
- Dental materials
- Patient management
- General education
- Oral and written communication
- Psychology and sociology
- Ethics and professionalism
In addition to classroom and lab-based learning, a dental hygienist school can provide you with the opportunity to take part in a substantial clinical component, often in an on-site dental clinic or community facility. This is a critical aspect of training since clinical experience is required to hone your skills and prepare you to meet licensing requirements.
If you're planning to advance your education by obtaining a master's degree, your studies will likely include research methods and applications, educational theory, epidemiology, statistics, leadership, and more.
What is a Typical Dental Hygienist Salary?
The earning potential for a dental hygienist can range depending on a variety of factors, such as geographic location, level of experience, and area of practice, but these national estimates from May 2011 provide a look at the overall picture:**
- The median dental hygienist salary came in at $69,760 annually, which works out to $33.54 per hour.
- The lowest-earning 10 percent of those employed in the dental hygiene field received less than $46,020 per year, or $22.12 an hour.
- The highest-earning 10 percent received more than $94,850 per year, or $45.60 an hour.
Plus, since over 60 percent of dental hygienists only work part time, it's important to take this into consideration. Not only does this profession pay quite well, it also requires fewer hours than many other allied health professions. Additionally, when you compare a dental hygiene salary to the wage for similar jobs, you can see that dental hygienists earn substantially more.
Geographically speaking, dental hygienists on the West Coast (including Alaska) are at the top of the list for salaries, and the East Coast isn't far behind. The lowest-paying states include Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia, respectively.
If you want to obtain specific information about the earning potential in your area, it is a good idea to check with local dental hygienist schools or dental offices for more accurate numbers.
What is the Career Outlook for Dental Hygienists?
If you are wondering whether a career as a dental hygienist is a good move, the data related to career outlook is encouraging. The rising number of openings in this profession can be attributed to a variety of reasons. For one thing, the increased understanding of how oral health affects overall health is driving demand for preventive dental care. Additionally, new advances in the field, along with an aging population, are creating further opportunities. Plus, since there are millions of individuals across the country who lack access to a dentist, many state and local organizations are stepping up and funding dental hygienist services to fill the gap.
According to national employment estimates, this field is expected to grow by 38 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is much higher than the average for all occupations. (The actual number of dental hygienists working in the field is projected to increase by 68,500 from the current 181,800.)***
Where Do Dental Hygienists Work?
The majority of dental hygienists work in dentists' offices alongside dentists and other dental care personnel. However, dental hygienists can also be found in a variety of other work environments, such as specialty oral health practices, community health organizations, public health clinics, schools, correctional facilities, hospitals, and long-term care facilities.
Outside of clinical practice, there are also opportunities within public administration, education, research, marketing, and sales.
What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Becoming a Dental Hygienist?
When considering a new career path, it's important to weigh the pros and cons of the profession in order to make sure you understand all of the reasons for and against your decision. Here are some common benefits and drawbacks of a career in dental hygiene:
- Flexible hours—One of the major draws to this field is the flexible nature of the work. As mentioned above, fewer than 40 percent of all dental hygienists work full time, with most only working a few days each week. This fact alone makes dental hygiene a very popular career choice for those with families, especially parents who want the ability to spend more time at home.
- A social work environment—Becoming a dental hygienist can be an excellent choice if you would enjoy working closely with others, including dentists, dental assistants, and patients. Additionally, as you build a practice over a long period of time, you can develop relationships with patients.
- The chance to help others—As a dental hygienist, you will be responsible for front-line dental care. You will not only be cleaning teeth but also delivering important care and education that can contribute to your patients' improved health. Plus, you can help make their visits a pleasant experience by providing your services in a kind and compassionate manner.
- Varied surroundings—Many dental hygienists work on a contract basis, allowing them to spend time in a variety of offices. If you choose this route, you could be working with a wide range of different health and dental professionals, as well as patients.
- Strong demand for your services—The outlook for a career in dental hygiene is expected to be very good in the coming years thanks to the many reasons mentioned previously.
- Fascinating work—A career as a dental hygienist means that you will be working in a field that is both fascinating and continually advancing, especially when it comes to preventive care and connecting oral health with overall well-being.
- Contracting benefits—As a contractor, you could enjoy the opportunity to choose which clients you take on, what days you work, and more. You could also negotiate items such whether your pay structure is hourly, daily, or commission-based.
- Sitting for long periods—Due to the necessity of spending long stretches of time bent over while cleaning teeth, many dental hygienists experience neck and back pain. However, there are measures you can take to ensure you exhibit good posture, such as sitting in an ergonomically correct chair.
- Patients in pain or distress—Not everyone enjoys going to the dentist. This means that you may have to perform cleanings and examinations on individuals who are in pain or are experiencing anxiety.
- Small spaces to work in—While cleaning teeth or performing other procedures, you will be working in someone's mouth, which doesn't leave you much room. As a dental hygienist, you will need to hone your ability to navigate this small space using precision.
- Instability of contract work—If you become a contract dental hygienist, you will have to deal with things like patients cancelling without notice, meaning you won't be paid for no-show appointments.
- A large gender gap—According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), 97 percent of dental hygienists are female. So if you are a male thinking about entering this field, you might be the exception.
- Potential health hazards—As a dental hygienist, you could be working with individuals in all states of health, meaning there can be a risk of infection through airborne or blood-borne pathogens. However, this risk can be minimized through stringent safety measures and infection control practices.
- Chemical exposure—Dental offices are home to a variety of chemicals and irritants, such as silica dust, anesthetic gas, and beryllium, which can cause health problems. But, by following safety practices and procedures, this risk can be controlled.
- The smell of bad breath and the sight of tooth decay—Since you'll be working in patients' mouths, it's safe to assume you will be coming into contact with bad breath, rotten teeth, and even food, which can be a little gross.
Is Becoming a Dental Hygienist Right for Me?
If you agree with the following statements, then becoming a dental hygienist could be a great match for your career future:
- You are good with your hands
- You enjoy working with people
- You aren't squeamish
- You are kind and compassionate
- You are very detail-oriented
- You possess good time-management skills
- You are a team player
How Do I Get Started?
Now that you are armed with a wealth of information about becoming a dental hygienist and have a better idea about what a career in dental hygiene looks like, you might be ready to take the next step.
Begin by browsing through this guide to dental hygienist schools.
* American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), Dental Hygiene Education Facts, April 2012, web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on August 7, 2012.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, web site last accessed on August 7, 2012.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, web site last accessed on August 7, 2012.
American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
American Dental Association (ADA), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
American Dental Education Association (ADEA), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association (CDHA), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
Institute for Oral Health (IOH), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.