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What Do Dental Hygienists Do?
A career as a dental hygienist offers a wide range of challenges.
In the dental office, the dentist and the dental hygienist work together to meet patients oral health needs. States regulate the services hygienists can perform. Some of the services provided by hygienists may include:
- Patient screening procedures: assessment of oral health conditions, review of health history, oral cancer screening, head and neck inspection, dental charting, and taking blood pressure and pulse.
- Taking and developing dental radiographs (X-rays).
- Removing calculus and plaque (hard and soft deposits) from all tooth surfaces.
- Applying preventative material (e.g., sealants and fluoride treatments) on teeth
- Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health (e.g., toothbrushing, flossing, and nutritional counseling).
- Counseling patients regarding good nutrition and its impact on oral health.
- Making impressions of patient's teeth for study casts. Study casts are models of teeth used by dentists to evaluate patient treatment needs
- Performing documentation and office management activities.
What are the Advantages of a Dental Hygiene Career?
Dental hygiene offers the following challenges and rewards:
- Personal satisfaction:
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a career in dental hygiene is working with people. Personal fulfillment comes from providing a valuable health care service while establishing trusting relationships with patients.
As a result of their education and clinical training in a highly skilled discipline, dental hygienists are respected as valued members of the oral health care team.
Dental hygienists use a variety of interpersonal and clinical skills to meet the oral health needs of many different patients each day. Hygienists have opportunities to help special population groups such as children, the elderly, and the disabled. They may also provide oral health instruction in primary and secondary schools and other settings.
Because dental hygienists interact with such diverse population groups, they must be creative in their approach to patient management and oral health education.
The flexibility offered by full- and part-time employment options, as well as the availability of evening and weekend hours, enables dental hygienists to balance their career and lifestyle needs. Hygienists also have opportunities to work in a wide variety of settings including: private dental practices, educational and community institutions, research teams, and dental corporations.
The services that dental hygienists provide are needed and valued by a large percentage of the population. There is currently a great demand for dental hygienists with excellent employment opportunities. Due to the success of preventive dentistry in reducing the incidence of oral disease, the expanding older population will retain their teeth longer, and will be even more aware of the importance of regular dental care. With the emphasis on preventive care, dentists will need to employ more dental hygienists than ever before to meet the increased demand for dental services. Practice patterns also influence employment opportunities for hygienists. With the current trend toward group practice and practice styles that stress effective and productive use of office personnel, job opportunities will continue to increase.
Where Do Dental Hygienists Work?
There are many employment opportunities in the field of dental hygiene, since many dentists employ one or more dental hygienists.
Hygienists are in demand in general dental practices, as well as in specialty practices such as periodontics or pediatric dentistry.
Hygienists may also be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and public health clinics. Depending upon the level of education and experience achieved, dental hygienists can also apply their skills and knowledge to other career activities such as teaching hygiene students in dental schools and dental hygiene education programs. Research, office management, and business administration are other career options. Additionally, employment opportunities may be available with companies that market dental-related materials and equipment.
What Education/Training Does a Dental Hygienist Need?
Dental hygienists receive their education through academic programs at community colleges, technical colleges, dental schools, or universities. The majority of community college programs take at least two years to complete, with graduates receiving associate degrees. Receipt of this degree allows a hygienist to take licensure examinations (national and state or regional), become licensed, and work in a dental office. University-based dental hygiene programs may offer Bachelor's and Master's degrees, which generally require at least two years of further schooling. These additional degrees may be required to embark on a career in teaching and/or research, as well as for clinical practice in school or public health programs.
Dental hygiene program admission requirements vary, depending upon the specific school. High school-level courses such as health, biology, psychology, chemistry, mathematics, and speech will be beneficial in a dental hygiene career. Most programs show a preference for individuals who have completed at least one year of college. Some Bachelor's degree programs require that applicants complete two years of college prior to enrollment in the dental hygiene program. Counselors, advisors, and prospective students should contact the particular dental hygiene program of interest for specific program requirements.
Dental hygiene education programs provide students with clinical education in the form of supervised patient care experiences. Additionally, these programs include courses in liberal arts (e.g., English, speech, sociology, and psychology); basic sciences (e.g., anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, chemistry, microbiology, and pathology); and clinical sciences (e.g., dental hygiene, radiology, and dental materials). After completion of a dental hygiene program, dental hygienists can choose to pursue additional training in such areas as education, business administration, basic sciences, marketing, and public health.
The agency responsible for accrediting dental hygiene education programs and deciding whether or not they meet the standards for accreditation is the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association. There are approximately 235 Commission-accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States. For a list of dental hygiene programs in New England please click here.
Examination and Licensure
Dental hygienists are licensed by each state to provide dental hygiene care and patient education.
Almost all states require that dental hygienists be graduates of Commission-accredited dental hygiene education programs to be eligible for state licensure. Additionally, almost all states require candidates for licensure to obtain a passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (a comprehensive written examination) in addition to passing the state-authorized licensure examination. The state or regional examination tests candidates' clinical dental hygiene skills as well as their knowledge of dental hygiene and related subjects.
Upon receipt of their license, dental hygienists may use "RDH" after their names to signify recognition by the state that they are a Registered Dental Hygienist.
What Is a Dental Hygienist's Earning Potential?
The salary of a dental hygienist depends primarily upon the responsibilities associated with the specific position, the geographic location of employment and the type of practice or other setting in which the hygienist works. Hygienists earn salaries e qual to other health care personnel with similar educational backgrounds and experience.
Dental hygienists are considered an integral part of the dental team providing educational and preventive services to ensure delivery of long-term oral health.
Where Can I Get More Information?
Contact your dentist, dental hygienist, or the local dental society component of the American Dental Association in your area. Perhaps you can arrange for a brief visit to a dental office to observe a dental hygienist at work. You can also contact an accredited dental hygiene program and arrange to visit the school and talk with a counselor.
For a list of accredited dental hygiene programs throughout the country, please contact:
The Commission on Dental Accreditation
211 E. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
For more information on a career in dental hygiene, please visit the American Dental Association's section on careers in dentistry.
American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA)
444 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 440-8929 fax
The ADHA is the national professional organization for dental hygienists.
American Dental Education Association (ADEA)
1625 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036-2212
(202) 667-0642 fax
The ADEA is an organization that promotes the advancement of dental education, research, and service in all institutions that offer accredited programs for dental personnel.
Dental Hygiene Programs in New England
Bristol Community College
Kristine Bishop Chapman, RDH, Director
777 Elsbree Street
Fall River, MA 02720
(508) 678-2811, ext. 2143
(508) 675-2318 fax
Cape Cod Community College
Elaine Madden, RDH, Coordinator
2240 Iyannough Road
West Barnstable, MA 02668
(508) 362-2131 ext. 4628
(508) 375-4008 fax
Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
Linda D. Boyd, RDH, RD, EdD
Dean of Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene
Associate Professor of Dental Hygiene
179 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
(617) 732-2225 fax
Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
Christine Dominick, CDA. RDH, M.Ed
19 Foster St
Worcester, MA 01608
Middlesex Community College
Nancy J. Baccari, RDH, BS
33 Kearney Square
Lowell, MA 01852
(978) 656-3078 fax
Mt. Ida College
Jacyn S. Stultz, RDH, MS
777 Dedham St
Newton, MA 02459
(617) 928-7370 fax
Mount Wachusett Community College
Cindy Cadoret, CDA, RDH, MPH
326 Nichols Road
Quinsigamond Community College
Jane Gauthier, RDH
670 West Boylston St.
Worcester, MA 01606
Springfield Tech Community College
Sharon Hilton, RDH, Program Coordinator
One Armory Square
Springfield, MA 01105
(413) 755-4926 fax
Looking for a program outside of New England? Go to the ADA's Dental Programs page.