What Is a Dental Hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a professional whose job is to clean and inspect their patients’ teeth. Generally, dental hygienists work in a dentist’s office where they provide cleaning services prior to a full dental exam. The hygienist is the first line of defense. Thus, hygienists are trained to spot and report gum disease, dental caries, and other oral maladies.
Every hygienist is a licensed professional who must maintain their credentials in accordance with the laws of their state. Some have additional certifications that allow them to administer local anesthetics or restore implants or partials.
Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist
In order to become a Dental Hygienist, you must pass through a series of steps. The first, and most important step is to decide that this is the profession for you. Then, once you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to this particular part of healthcare, you should enroll in a degree program. From there, you might seek additional certifications, but you should definitely maintain your state license with continuing education courses.
Steps to Take:
Step 1: Is This for Me?
Step 2: Education
Step 3: Additional Certifications
Step 4: Maintain Your Credentials
Step 1: Is this for me?
The first step towards any meaningful, lasting career is determining that it’s the right path for you. Since dental hygiene is a part of the healthcare industry, you should want to help people attain, or maintain, optimal health. In fact, many health maladies show symptoms in a person’s mouth, so your routine cleaning might help someone discover and treat a disease before it becomes dire. Thus, ask yourself if such a healthcare role is something that is appealing.
You should also be the sort of person who can deal with a regular schedule, wearing medical scrubs, and occasional unpleasantness from a non-hygienic mouth.
Step 2: Education
Like most healthcare professions, you must receive an accredited education in your field. In the case of dental hygiene, you need an associate’s degree. You can often find these programs at a local community college. Technical colleges also offer dental programs, including dental assistant and more.
Prior to enrolling make sure that your program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA.) This credential will ensure that your program has been reviewed by its peers and that you will be fully prepared to practice as a dental hygienist. Further, your state should acknowledge a CODA program for your licensure.
Step 3: Additional Certifications
You won’t be able to practice as a dental hygienist without your state license, but you may find that you need additional certifications to find a job. If your local area is full of licensed hygienists, you’ll need to stand out from the pack with an additional certification, such as one that qualifies you to administer local anesthesia, nitrous oxide, restorative duties, or more.
When you add more state endorsements to your license, your resume will stand out from other prospective job candidates. Further, you will enjoy having more responsibilities and capabilities in the dental office.
Step 4: Maintain your credentials
Like most state-issued licenses, you must maintain your credentials as a Dental Hygienist. To do so, you should complete your state’s requirements for continuing education. State requirements vary, so please check with the ADHA for their chart that details each state’s requirements. For instance, some ask that you complete 24 hours of classroom education every two years. Other states require 54 hours every three years. There are also requirements that govern whether you can fulfill the requirements with self-study courses or volunteer practice hours.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
A Dental Hygienist is a professional who cleans patients’ teeth, administers anesthesia, and perhaps replaces or installs restoratives. On a daily basis, you might see several patients for cleanings, do the required paperwork for them, and work with the dentist, too. If you have the proper credentials, you could help a dentist with minor procedures by administering local anesthesia. In some states you can also put patients to sleep with nitrous oxide.
Dental Hygienists will also prepare and take patient x-rays, administer fluoride treatments, make an overall assessment of a patient’s oral health, report to the dentist, and provide educational information for patients. Where the dentist takes care of the final results of poor dental health, such as caries and infection, the hygienist’s duties are primarily preventative.
Though most hygienists work under the direct supervision of a dentist, you might work more or less independently depending on your state’s law.
Dental Hygienist Skills to Acquire
One of the chief skills a hygienist must have is a sense of calm and compassion. That’s because most patients have an innate fear and dislike of the dentist. If you can put a patient at ease, you will be of immense help.
You should also have fantastic visual acuity and diagnostic skills so that you can identify various problems with oral health. For instance, you should be able to identify gingivitis and recognize when a patient has an abscessed tooth. You should also have a good facility with a variety of power, hand, and even ultrasonic tools. Some hygienists even use high pressure water systems to clean teeth, which might impair your ability to correctly identify tartar buildup if you are not familiar with those methods.
Dental Hygienists should also be able to properly fill out the necessary paperwork for patients. You should know the medical shorthand your dentist expects when reviewing a patient chart. You should otherwise have a working knowledge of dental lingo so that you can communicate effectively with your fellow dental professionals.
Finally, you should work hard to keep up to speed with current dental research. For instance, you should be able to point patients in the right direction as far as home care is concerned. The best toothpastes, toothbrushes, and even dietary supplements can make the difference between a simple cavity and a mouth full of abscesses.
While many dental hygienists start their careers by first attaining a degree and then starting work, that’s not the only possible route. If you’re not quite sure of how to proceed, you might start your career as a dental office assistant. Working in the office will provide valuable experience that you can translate to medical offices, or other office environments.
Another route is to attain a certification to work as a Dental Assistant. You’ll be able to work alongside the Dentist and Hygienist. This way you’ll gain valuable experience with the patients and professionals that make dentistry the vital practice it is.
Yet another way to enter the dental profession as a hygienist is to gain training through the military. Army personnel who have an ASVAB score of 91 qualify as skilled technicians and can thus receive the necessary training. You’ll still receive regular pay for your rank while serving under an Army Dentist. Once your tour of duty is up, and you are discharged, the Army will help you find work in a civilian health system.
Dental Hygienist Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
All Dental Hygienists essentially work in similar environments. Dental offices are generally similar regardless of location. However, you might work for a government dental provider, such as the Veterans Administration. If you join the military, many soldiers work as Dental Specialists to keep the mouths of active duty personnel healthy and happy. In fact, the Army Reserves may be able to train you to be a Dental Hygienist, thus enabling you to earn money while learning a valuable career skill.
There are also many dental clinics that help low-income people attain dental health. At the other end of the spectrum are high-end specialty dental clinics that maintain a luxurious atmosphere and cater to very affluent patients.
If you love children, you might seek out employment for a Pediatric Dentist. Your training will be the same as any other Hygienist, but you will simply choose to work in this specialty area. Given the preventative nature of your profession, your influence could save those children lots of time and money they would otherwise have spent filling adult cavities.
Potential Career Paths
The field of Dentistry is somewhat limited to assistants, technicians, and hygienists. However, if you have a real love for helping people overcome illness and injury, you could springboard your clinical experience into another occupation in healthcare. In fact, you could transition to the medical side if you wish. Here are a few related career paths to consider:
This position is very similar to that of a Hygienist, but they have a specific licensing process and slightly different duties, depending on the office. However, in the right dental practice you could take over many of those duties and thus be a more versatile team player.
Dental Laboratory Technicians:
Laboratory technicians don’t often see patients, but their work is perhaps more intimate in a patient’s life. That’s because dental laboratory technicians create the implants and crowns patients rely on every day. If you want to become more familiar with the specific architecture of teeth, and restoratives, this is a wonderful occupation to pursue.
Many dental team members eventually decide to attend dental school and become full-fledged Dentists. Your earlier experience as an assistant or technician will be invaluable in your career as a Doctor of Dentistry.
Though not specifically related, if you wish to change careers to one that is less clinical, the Pharmacy is a great move. Pharmacy Techs help patients better understand their medications. Some work in compounding pharmacies and create medicines that specifically match a patient’s needs.
Licensed Practical Nurse:
If you wish to transition to the medical field, you could return to school and become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN.) This occupation allows you to specialize in fields such as foot care, childbirth, developmental disabilities, pharmacology, and more. With a range of working environments including home care, nursing homes, and hospitals, your career choices will be quite diverse.
Certified Nursing Assistant:
With a solid background as a Dental Hygienist, you can transition to work as a CNA with no problem. Your background in patient relations (bedside manner) will be highly valued by the doctors and nurses you work alongside, and your patients will love you for it. CNAs often work in nursing homes, but they are found in hospitals, in-home care scenarios, and many more environments where people need help.
Dental Hygienist Career Salaries
|Dental Hygienist, AAS||$35,000||$55,000||$76,000|
|Dental Hygienist, Cert.||$29,000||$48,000||$73,000|
|Registered Dental Hygienist||$40,000||$61,000||$81,000|
|Dental Office Manager||$38,000||$51,000||$69,000|
|Dental Insurance Coordinator||$30,000||$39,000||$60,000|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
The outlook for Dental Hygienists is quite good. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that this occupation is slated to grow by 20% through the year 2026. They state that this is much faster than average, as average tends to be around 7%.
Since the national average pay for this position is $74,070, this is bound to be a highly sought position. After all, Registered Nurses earn an average of $70,000, and their minimum educational requirement is a bachelor’s degree. Consider, too, that Dental Hygienists work normal office hours in a lower-stress environment.
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Advancing from Here
After you have worked for several years as a Dental Hygienist and attained the necessary certifications to expand your practice to its fullest potential, you might want to move up. One potential way to advance yourself is to return to school and become a dentist. Your pay will potentially double and you’ll be able to join a dental practice as a partner.
There are many other opportunities, however. You could decide to move into the business side of dentistry. You might start talking with the sales representatives who sell products to your office and find that you’re a good match to sell dental products yourself. After all, you will be an expert at how they’re used.
Another route could be into Public Health. After talking to countless patients about oral care, you might work for a public health agency that delivers seminars and other educational outreach. You could also find yourself back at the school that trained you, but as an instructor. As a master of the field, you will have a lot to offer to students.
The field of Dental Hygiene is far from limited. The profession itself is rewarding and competitively compensated, you get to work with interesting people, and help patients with their health. Then, if you choose, you can discover a bounty of opportunities where your talents and skills will continue to flourish.
Healthcare Career Paths