A dental hygienist, also known as a registered dental hygienist (RDH), provides preventative dental care and diagnoses tooth and gum diseases. They use a variety of tools and instruments to do their work such as tooth polishing machines and oral x-ray equipment. Their duties involve assessing the patient’s condition, creating a treatment plan, performing dental work, and evaluating the results. The scope of their work is regulated by the state. Although the job duties may vary from state to state, they typically include:
- Cleaning teeth to remove stains, tartar, and plaque
- Protecting teeth by applying fluoride and sealants
- Taking x-rays to assist with diagnosis and treatment
- Educating patients about proper oral hygiene
- Managing and monitoring patient care and progress
In some states, dental hygienists are allowed to insert temporary fillings, carve filling materials, place periodontal dressings, and apply anesthesia. However, these duties may require additional training and certification.
Education and Certification
Dental hygienists must be licensed by the state, but requirements for this license vary. In general, a person must have obtained at least a certificate in dental hygiene from an accredited educational program. The most common type of degree obtained, though, is an associate’s. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are also available and people interested in teaching, research, or practicing in school or public health programs usually pursue these advanced degrees.
These degree programs can be completed at community colleges. They typically involve classroom, clinical, and laboratory work. Typical coursework include physiology, radiography, anatomy, nutrition, and periodontology. High school students should take classes in chemistry, math, and biology if they are interested in getting into this line of work.
Another requirement for licensing is to pass a written and/or practical exam conducted by the state. For specific information about licensure in your state, contact your local medical or health board.
To be effective in your work as a dental hygienist, you must possess the following characteristics:
- Dexterity: You will be handling different types of dental instruments and maneuvering them in tight spaces. You must have good hand/eye coordination and be able to grasp and work with small and precise tools.
- Interpersonal skills: Dental hygienists work closely with patients and other dental professionals. It is important to know how to interact with people in a calm and professional manner.
- Technical skills: You must be willing and able to operate complex equipment like x-ray machines and other complicated instrumentation.
- Detail oriented: Patient treatment and safety depends on the hygienist being able to follow directions and protocol and making note of information important to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
- Stamina: You must be able to stand and bend over for long periods of time with reasonable accommodations.
Dental hygienists work in dentist offices with other dental professionals such as orthodontists and dental assistants. These offices are usually clean, organized, and well lit. While most dental offices have a steady flow of patients, there may be times during the year when the office is busier than usual, such as before the school year commences.
Dealing with the public puts dental hygienists at risk of contracting infectious diseases like the flu. To minimize the risk, you will wear gloves, face masks, safety glasses and other protective clothing. There is risk of exposure to radiation from x-rays but this can be minimized by following safety precautions.
Approximately 38% of dental hygienists work full time and 50% worked part time. To create a full-time schedule, many part-time hygienists work for multiple dentists. Dental hygienists enjoy flexible scheduling since they see patients by appointment but may be required to work on weekends.
Dental Hygienist Salary
In May 2010, the average salary for dental hygienists across the country was $68,250. The highest paid 10% earned $93,820 and the lowest paid 10% earned $45,000. The actual wage a person will make in this occupation depends on a variety of factors including education, location, and employer. In addition to their wages, many dental hygienists also enjoy health benefits, vacation, contributions to a retirement fund, and sick leave.
In 2010, there were 181,800 dental hygienist jobs. The number of job opportunities is expected to grow 38% by 2020. There are several things fueling this higher than average job growth. Dentists are hiring more and more hygienists to perform basic dental care so they can see more patients needing specialized work. An aging population seeking to retain their original teeth or obtain replacements is also a contributing factor. Advances in technology and research connecting oral health to overall health will lead to an increase in demand for dental health services.
However, the demand for dental services closely follows what is happening in the economy. Unfortunately, dental health is the service people put at the bottom of the list when they don’t have any money. Therefore, the availability of dental hygienist jobs may be negatively impacted when the economy is slow.