Dental Hygienist

Dental Hygienists Overview

Dental hygienists are one of the fastest growing occupations and job prospects are projected to be good in most areas. Some areas, however will experience keen competition. Aspiring dental hygienists are required to hold a degree from an accredited dental hygiene school as well as a State license. Flexible scheduling is an attractive feature for this career, and most dental hygienists work part time.

Nature of the Work for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists teach patients how to practice good oral hygiene, remove hard and soft deposits from teeth as well as providing additional preventative dental care. They record the presence of disease or abnormalities after examining patients’ teeth and gums.

Dental hygienists use a variety of equipment in order to complete their tasks. They take dental pictures using x-ray machines and in some cases are required to develop the film. Dental hygienists also use ultrasonic devices and rotary and hand instruments to clean and polish teeth, removing stains, tartar and plaque. Sometimes a dental hygienist applies cavity-preventative agents such as fluorides, perform root planning as periodontal therapy and use models of teeth to explain oral hygiene.

The duties performed by dental hygienists depend on the State. In some states, dental hygienists administer local anesthetics using syringes, while in others they are allowed to administer anesthetics. In other states, dental hygienists remove sutures, smooth and polish metal restorations and allow hygienists to place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings and periodontal dressings.

In some cases, a dental hygienist help patients develop and maintain sound oral health practices. Other times, dental hygienists make a diagnosis or prepare laboratory and clinical diagnostic tests for the dentist to interpret. Sometimes dental hygienists work alongside a dentist during treatment.

Dental hygienists work in well-lit, clean offices. They must adhere to strict observance of proper radiological procedures and the appropriate use of protective devices when administering anesthetic gas. To protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases, dental hygienists wear gloves, surgical masks and safety glasses. Because dental hygienists must sit while working on patients, they have to be careful to avoid possible neck and shoulder injuries.

Dental hygienists enjoy flexible schedules, which may be full-time, part-time, weekend or evening schedules. They may hold jobs in more than one dental office because they frequently only work 2 or 3 days a week. Close to half of all dental hygienists work less than 35 hours per week, which are normal part-time hours.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Dental Hygienists

Requirements for dental hygiene programs vary by institution. Sometimes a college entrance test combined with a high school diploma is sufficient for admission into a dental hygiene program. Other times, applicants are required to have completed at least one year of college. Recommended high school courses for those aspiring to be dental hygienists include chemistry, biology and mathematics.

There are 301 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The most popular dental hygiene programs grant associate degrees and some offer masters degrees, bachelors degrees or certificates. An associates degree or certificate is usually the minimum requirement for practice in a private dental office. Research, teaching or clinical practice dental hygienists employed in public or school health programs require a bachelors or masters degree.

Common laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction for dental hygienists are offered in anatomy, chemistry, pharmacology, physiology, radiography, nutrition, histology, pathology, periodontology, clinical dental hygiene, dental materials and social and behavioral sciences.

Each State has its own licensing requirements for dental hygienists. Practically every State require candidates are required to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school and pass both a clinical and written examination. All States, including the District of Columbia accept the written examination offered by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations. Dental hygienist candidates in Alabama, however, are not required to take the ADA written exam, but rather meet the requirements of the Alabama Dental Hygiene Program. This program involves mandatory courses, on-the-job training at a dentist’s office and passing a State administered licensing examination.

Dental hygienists should have strong communication skills, as they frequently work closely with dental assistants and dentists and deal directly with patients. Because they work in patients’ mouths using dental instruments, hygienists are required to have good manual dexterity.

Typically, a bachelors or masters degree in dental hygiene is required for advancement in this career. Advancement opportunities include working in public health, teaching a dental hygiene program or working in a corporate setting.

Employment and Job Outlook for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists hold about 173,900 jobs, and about 96 percent of dental hygienists work in offices of dentists. A small number work for employment services in physicians’ offices or other industries. The number of jobs exceed the number of hygienists because multiple job holding is common. Over 50 percent of dental hygienists work part-time.

Job growth for dental hygienists is expected to increase by 36 percent in the next decade, which is much faster than average for all occupations. This is mainly in response to a growing demand for dental care and more use of hygienists. As a growing emphasis is placed on preventative dental care, population grows and older people increasingly retain more teeth, there will be a growing demand for dental services. Job prospects will vary by geographical location, but are expected to be favorable in most areas. Dental hygienists who wish to practice in areas that have an abundance of dental hygiene programs may experience keen competition for jobs because graduates are permitted to practice only in the State in which they are licensed.

Some job growth will occur because older dentists who are less likely to employ dental hygienists are leaving the occupation to be replaced by recent graduates, who are more likely to employ one or more hygienist. More dental hygienists are expected to be hired to perform preventative dental care, as dentists’ workloads increase so that they may devote their time to more complex procedures.

Earnings and Salary for Dental Hygienists

The median annual wages of dental hygienists is $67,340 and the middle 50 percent earn between $55,620 and $79,990. The highest 10 percent earn more than $92,860, while the lowest 10 percent earn less than $44,900. Earnings vary depending on years of experience, employment setting and geographic location. Dental hygienists are either paid on an hourly, daily, salary or commission basis.

Benefits for dental hygienists may be contingent upon full-time employment and vary by practice setting. About half of all hygienists reported receiving some form of employment benefits, according to a survey conducted by the American Dental Hygienist Association. The most common benefits for dental hygienists are sick leave, vacation and retirement plans.

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