When you go for a dental checkup, you'll most likely spend the majority of the appointment with a dental hygienist. Dental hygienists work with the dentist to provide preventative oral care, cleaning patients' teeth and examining them for signs of damage and disease. Dental hygienists also teach patients, particularly young children, about the importance of maintaining good oral health. However, exact job duties and functions as well as the services they can legally deliver vary according to the state in which they are licensed to practice.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists held approximately 200,500 jobs in 2014. These licensed healthcare professionals typically work under the supervision of dentists in dental offices. Since about 50 percent of dental hygienists held part-time positions in 2014, some hygienists may seek employment in more than one dental practice.
Students interested in pursuing a career as a hygienist must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school with a master's degree, a bachelor's degree, a certificate or, most commonly, an associate degree. A master's degree or bachelor's degree is typically required clinical practice, research or teaching in school or public health programs. More than 300 dental hygiene programs were accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in 2015, and programs typically take three years to complete. Students receive classroom, clinical and laboratory instruction, and areas of study may include patient management, head and neck anatomy, medical ethics, pathology, radiography, nutrition, physiology, anatomy and periodontics, the study of gum disease. In addition, dental hygienists must also be licensed in the state in which they plan to work.
Job Outlook and Salary
The BLS indicates that employment in the field of dental hygiene will grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average of all occupations. Ongoing research linking general health and oral health will continue to increase the demand for preventative dental services. According to the BLS, in May 2015, dental hygienists earned a median annual wage of $72,330. The highest 10 percent in the field brought in more than $98,440, and the lowest 10 percent grossed less than $50,140.
On any given day, a dental hygienist may perform a number of functions, including applying fluoride and sealants to patients' teeth, assisting the dentist by working chair-side, preparing diagnostic tests for the dentists to administer, teaching patients how to care for their teeth to maintain good oral health and keeping patients' records in order to track treatment and care. Dental hygienists also develop x-rays, take dental x-rays and perform dental cleanings to remove soft and hard deposits on patients' teeth. Depending on the state in which a hygienist is licensed, he or she may also smooth and polish metal restorations, remove sutures, help prepare patients for dental surgery or procedures by administering anesthetics or apply periodontal dressings, temporary fillings or filling materials.
Dental hygienists excel in preventive oral health after having furthered their education and earned a degree from an accredited dental hygiene school or program. These individuals are educated, trained and licensed in dental hygiene to provide therapeutic, administrative, research, clinical and educational services that support patients' total health by stressing the importance of optimum oral health. Due to the straightforward educational requirements, the positive job outlook and the comfortable salary, students seeking a career as a dental hygienist may be pleased to find job satisfaction in this particular industry.