Dental Hygienist – Who are they & What they do?

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Dr Hira Sualeh
Hira has done BDS. She is a dentist, wife, sister, daughter, and mother, all rolled into one confusing package. With the little time her son leaves her, she likes to read and binge watches anything on Netflix.

A dental hygienist may be the first person that you meet when you visit a dentist. A dental hygienist is responsible for cleaning your teeth, examining them for signs of disease and educating you on the best ways to keep your mouth and teeth healthy. In the dental office, the dentist and the hygienist work together to meet the oral health needs of patients.

Every state requires hygienists to be licensed. However, the requirement varies with the state. In most states, a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing grades on written and clinical examination are required for the license. This article will explain what a dental hygienist is and the role they play in a dental practice.

What is a dental hygienist?

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A dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional who is registered with a dental association or regulatory body within their country of practice. They work in a range of dental settings, from independent, private, or specialist practices to the public sector.

They work together with dentists, dental therapists, oral health therapists as well as other dental professionals.

Role

In the dental office, the dentist and the hygienist work together to meet the oral health needs of the patients. Some of the services provided by a hygienist may include –

  • Patient screening procedures, such as assessment of oral health conditions, review of the 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 surfaces of the teeth.
  • Applying preventive materials to the teeth.
  • Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health.
  • Counseling patients about proper nutrition and its impact on oral health.
  • Making impressions of patient’s teeth for study casts.
  • Performing documentation and office management activities.

Education requirements for a dental hygienist

A dental hygienist typically needs an associate degree in dental hygiene. Dental hygiene programs are commonly found in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. Programs usually take three years to complete and offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction.

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Areas of study include physiology, nutrition, radiography, pathology, medical ethics, anatomy, patient management, and periodontics, which is the study of gum disease. High school students interested in becoming hygienist should take courses in biology, chemistry, and math.

Most dental hygiene programs also require applicants to complete prerequisites, which often include college-level courses.

Salary

The median annual wage for a dental hygienist is $70,000. Benefits such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions vary by the employer and may be available to full-time workers only. About half of dental hygienists work part-time. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

Essential qualities

  • They must use critical thinking skills to assess and evaluate patients.
  • They must accurately communicate with dentists and patients about oral health status, oral hygiene care plans, and as needed, lifestyle counseling.
  • They must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists diagnose and treat a patient.
  • They must be good at working with their hands, requiring excellent motor skills using tools and instruments.
  • They must work closely with dentists and patients. Some patients are in extreme pain or have fears about undergoing dental treatment, and the hygienist must be sensitive to their emotions.
  • They should develop and implement oral hygiene care plans to maintain or improve patient’s oral health.

Career advantages

Dental hygienists are in demand in general dental practices and specific in specialty practices. They also may be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and public health clinics. A career as a dental hygienist offers the following challenges and rewards –

  • Working with people gives a personal fulfillment, which comes from providing a valuable health care service while establishing trusting relationships with patients.
  • 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.
  • They must be creative in their approach to patient management and oral health education.
  • The flexibility offered by full- and part-time employment options and availability of evening and weekend had enabled dental hygienists to balance their career and lifestyle needs.
  • There is currently a high demand for dental hygienists. Employment opportunities will be excellent well into the future. 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.

FAQs on dental hygienist

How many years of school does it require to be a dental hygienist?

Usually, to become a registered dental hygienist, it may take from two years to 27 or 30 months. Typically, dental hygienist courses consist of lectures and clinical operations. Students in this program get a comprehensive array of preventive services, digital radiography, and supervised clinical rotations.

After graduation, the students take up national board examinations and a clinical licensing exam to become eligible for practice in the United States. Additionally, dental hygienists can also work in association with educators, researchers, and administrators.

How much does a dental hygienist earn yearly and per hour?

The average hourly pay of a dental hygienist is approximately $36 – $40 per hour in a private dental office. This accounts for a median annual salary of dental hygienists ranging between $75,000 – $90,000 per annum.

Take away message

Choosing the right dentist includes assessing the care you receive from your dental hygienist. Someone who shows true ease with dental equipment as well as a great chair side manner and gentle touch is an extremely valuable part of any dental practice.

The best dental hygienist can combine excellent training with a knack for an easy rapport with patients to set an excellent first impression on even the newest patient.

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