Dental Hygienist Job Description
Dental hygienists work in dentists’ offices, providing general oral care for patients that includes brushing, scraping, and polishing teeth and gums. While this role is similar to that of a dental assistant, dental hygienists tend to have a higher level of autonomy and may be the only dental professional present during a routine patient visit.
In addition to performing dental cleaning duties, dental hygienists also support overall patient oral health by taking X-rays and casts of a patient’s mouth, providing instruction and guidance on proper oral care, and verifying each patient’s oral health history. If the dental hygienist notices a potential issue, they inform the dentist, who can then provide a diagnosis.
Dental Hygienist Duties and Responsibilities
Based on postings that we examined, dental hygienists share several core duties across practices:
Clean Patient Teeth and Gums
The central responsibility of a dental hygienist is cleaning patient teeth and gums using a variety of tools and techniques. A dental hygienist may use a power brush to remove surface debris or use a scraper to remove built-up plaque and tartar. Additionally, the dental hygienist notes potential problem areas and ensures that the patient remains as comfortable as possible during the cleaning process.
Perform X-Rays and Take Casts
Dental hygienists take X-rays to get a better sense of potential issues beneath the patient’s gums. This X-ray imagery also provides the hygienist and dentist with a clear image of the patient’s dental structures and can help identify wisdom teeth that have not yet descended. The hygienist also takes casts and makes models of a patient’s teeth to aid with preventive care and future procedures.
Maintain Patient Records
Dental hygienists support their practice by maintaining and updating patient records. On a patient’s first visit, this process might involve gathering information about their oral health history, while on subsequent visits the dental hygienist may update existing records to reflect recent procedures and diagnoses. Additionally, the dental hygienist may work with office administrators to remind patients when it’s time for a routine cleaning visit.
Another of the dental hygienist’s main duties is educating patients on proper oral care techniques and practices. This can include demonstrating correct use of a toothbrush, showing a patient how to floss, and making recommendations about problem areas that the patient may be missing during daily brushing. The dental hygienist also provides patients with information on how to ensure correct oral hygiene between visits, such as making a recommendation for a new toothbrush.
Provide Dentists with Information
Because dental hygienists do not make diagnoses, another important part of this role is providing dentists with information that supports diagnostic decision-making. If a hygienist notices an issue, such as a cavity or infected tooth, they provide the dentist with information about the location and severity of the problem. The dentist then checks the patient to confirm the hygienist’s information and provide a diagnosis.
Dental Hygienist Skills and Qualifications
Dental hygienists promote oral health and work directly with dental patients. Most dental hygienists have at least an associate’s degree and the following skills:
- Technical skills – dental hygienists use a variety of tools that range from scrapers and power brushes to X-ray machines, and should be able to successfully utilize this equipment during cleanings or examinations
- Manual dexterity – a high level of precision is required to successfully clean and examine a patient’s teeth and gums without causing pain, so manual dexterity is very important in this role
- Patient communication – dental hygienists interact with patients throughout the day and should be able to provide instruction and advice, answer patient questions, and explain diagnoses
- Attention to detail – a high level of attention to detail is essential in this role, both in cleaning and examining patients’ mouths and ensuring that these procedures follow proper guidelines
- Record keeping – dental hygienists also support their dental practices by maintaining and updating patient records, ensuring that patient information is up to date and reflects any new diagnoses
Tools of the Trade
Dental hygienists work in medical offices and must be familiar with the following:
- Teeth-cleaning tools (power brushes, scrapers)
- Examination tools (X-ray machines, oral casts)
Dental Hygienist Education and Training
Generally, dental hygienists need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, which tends to be a three-year program. Dental hygienists must also be licensed in their states, although the requirements for certification and licensure can vary from state to state. There are some opportunities for on-the-job training in this role as hygienists learn the expectations of the dentists they work for and improve their techniques and practices.
Dental Hygienist Salary and Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists earn a median annual salary of $74,070. The highest-earning 10 percent of dental hygienists earn over $101,330 per year, while the lowest-paid 10 percent earn less than $51,180. The BLS also notes that roughly half of dental hygienists work part-time schedules, frequently for multiple dentists.
The BLS expects employment of dental hygienists to grow at a very rapid pace of 20 percent through 2026, although increasing numbers of graduates from dental hygiene programs means competition for these positions will be strong.
We searched the web and found many resources for further reading if you’re interested in starting a career as a dental hygienist:
American Dental Hygienist Association – the ADHA is a professional organization that provides dental hygienists with continuing education opportunities, trade publications, and career guidance
DH Notes: Dental Hygienist’s Chairside Pocket Guide – this handy reference guide provides quick, easy-to-search access to information that dental hygienists need every day
American Dental Association – the ADA is a professional and advocacy organization advancing oral hygiene by educating professionals in the field and setting standards for care and treatment
Foundations of Periodontics for the Dental Hygienist – read this reference guide to learn about periodontal surgery and disease and discover best practices for dental hygienists working in clinical settings
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