Guide to College Majors in Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting

If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.
--John Maynard Keynes

What is Dental Hygiene?

Dental hygiene is the healthy maintenance of the mouth, teeth, and gums by brushing, flossing, and periodic deep cleaning. A dental hygienist typically works in a dentist's office and assists patients with maintaining proper dental hygiene. A dental assistant usually works in the front of the dentist's office, greeting patients, making appointments, and ensuring appropriate record-keeping.

Dental hygienists examine a patient's teeth and gums and record their findings. They clean, polish, and remove deposits from the teeth. Dental hygienists also are responsible for taking radiographs, or X-rays. Dental hygienists work closely with dentists, gathering information from the patient for the dentist's assessment. Dentists use the data to diagnose problems and determine treatments.

Dental hygienists are responsible for educating patients on dental hygiene techniques. They teach patients how to properly brush and floss and how to prevent gum disease. Dental hygienists see patients of all ethnicities and backgrounds and must be able to communicate well with them.

Because small tools are used to clean and examine teeth, dental hygienists must work well with their hands. In addition to the cleaning and examination of the mouth, teeth, and gums, dental hygienists are often responsible for cleaning a patient's mouth after the dentist puts in a filling. Hygienists commonly polish fillings and scrape cement from the tooth that has been filled.

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Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists must complete a minimum of two years of school, usually earning an associate degree or a certification. To receive a dental hygienist's license, graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program is required. All dental hygienists in the United States must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Dental hygienists in Canada must be licensed by their province or territory.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists enjoy excellent job prospects. Patient rosters are increasing as more Americans get older and invest in dental care. Dentists require more dental hygienists to take care of routine cleanings and examinations and more dental assistants to handle logistics.

Graduates of dental hygiene programs typically become dental hygienists, but they are not limited to that career path. Dental hygienists sometimes transition to careers in sales, using their experience in the dental field to help them sell dental equipment and supplies.

Dental hygienists can also become health educators. They may teach dental hygiene to students in elementary and secondary schools. Many colleges and universities have added dental hygiene workshops to their orientation and first-year programs. Health education opportunities also exist in community organizations and government positions.

Though dental hygienists typically work in a dentist's office, a degree in dental hygiene can also create opportunities for careers in a variety of work environments. Regardless of the career path chosen, a degree in dental hygiene offers the rewarding opportunity to assist people in maintaining good health and healthy habits.

Career Education in Dental Hygiene & Dental Assisting

Dental hygienists typically complete a two-year program that awards an associate degree or certification. These programs usually require both general education courses and courses specific to the field of dental hygiene. General education courses important to dental hygiene degrees include college-level algebra, biology, and chemistry. Courses specific to dental hygiene may include dental pharmacology, radiography, and periodontology.

A Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene is typically a four-year program. As with an associate degree, the bachelor's degree emphasizes general education courses as well as courses specific to dental hygiene. Oral anatomy, hygiene theory, and cleaning techniques are courses common to the bachelor's degrees in dental hygiene.

Students entering a bachelor's degree program are required to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but many dental hygienists with an associate degree or certification enter the bachelor's degree programs to expand their clinical expertise and help advance their careers. With a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, a dental hygienist may qualify to become a health educator or work in healthcare management. Many hygienists are increasingly choosing to earn their bachelor's degrees online, in completion programs designed for associate degree holders who have already completed their clinical requirements.

Undergraduate dental hygiene programs usually require some clinical education in addition to coursework. Students earn hands-on experience with patients while working in a supervised environment. This clinical experience is helpful when taking the licensing examinations required of dental hygienists.

Graduate degrees in the field of dental hygiene are typically two-year programs and are completed after the bachelor's degree. They emphasize research, but also require coursework. Common graduate courses in dental hygiene include healthcare management, lab instruction, and clinical instruction. A graduate degree in the dental hygiene field creates the potential for careers in healthcare management, teaching, or faculty positions in dental hygiene programs and schools.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Dental Hygiene?

  • Dental hygienists are an important part of the dental profession. They typically work in a dentist's office but are also found in nursing homes, hospitals, and health clinics. In addition to the duties described above, in some states dental hygienists are allowed to administer anesthesia. They may place fillings, apply dressings, remove stitches, smooth and polish restorations such as crowns and bridges.

    Dental hygienists also have administrative duties. They record patient information and prepare it for the dentist's examination. They may set appointments and check patients into and out of the office.

    Many dental hygienists enjoy flexible work schedules. Hygienists often set their own appointments, allowing them to easily schedule time off. Some dentists require hygienists to work only two or three days per week, allowing them to work in more than one office.

    More than ever, dentists are emphasizing the importance of keeping natural teeth. Dental hygienists have proven to be successful in helping prevent the oral diseases that cause tooth decay and loss. This success has led to more clients and increased job security.

    Dental hygienists are required to complete an accredited dental hygiene program, which usually takes two or more years to complete. Dental hygienists must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, but most require a two-year degree, a written examination, and a clinical examination. Continuing education is also a common requirement.
  • Dental Assistants
    perform fewer clinical duties, and do not require certification as a dental hygienist. Though assistants do often perform basic patient care duties, such as polishing teeth and processing x-rays, their primary tasks involve handling paperwork and office logistics. Most dental assistants can get the training they need with on-campus or online certificate programs. Dental assisting is a solid, steady job with bright prospects, and also a good way to get your foot in the door of the workforce if you would like to work towards a dental hygiene career later on.
  • Health Education. Dental hygienists are educators by nature, teaching their patients the importance of proper dental care. With a degree in dental hygiene and experience as a dental hygienist, some professionals in this field choose to teach dental hygiene outside of the dentist's office.

    Dental hygiene education can occur in a variety of settings. A dental hygienist may teach students in elementary school or at colleges or universities. Community organizations and government agencies may also employ dental health educators.

    In elementary and secondary schools, dental hygienists are part of the health department. They are typically responsible for teaching proper dental care and techniques to students. In some schools they may administer fluoride to students.

    Experienced dental hygienists often teach dental hygiene courses at colleges and universities. They use their education and experience in the dental hygiene field to teach future hygienists on the techniques and tools of the dental hygiene profession.

    Community organizations and government agencies may employ dental hygienists to assist in educating communities on the importance of good dental hygiene. The dental hygienist may be responsible for identifying the needs of the community members and developing programs to meet those needs. These programs are often funded by grants, which the hygienist may be required to write.

    No matter the age group or environment in which they teach, dental hygiene educators must be capable of planning and executing educational programs using a variety of methods and materials. Dental hygienists in health education are usually required to maintain their dental hygienist's license. A graduate degree may be required for these positions, but often a degree in dental hygiene and experience as a hygienist are sufficient.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job prospects for health educators will grow faster than average over the next 8 years. Health educators with master's degrees or greater can expect excellent job possibilities.
  • Sales. A degree in dental hygiene and experience as a dental hygienist can be the basis for a career as a medical sales representative. For example, a company that manufactures a rinse intended to treat gingivitis would be interested in hiring a sales person who possessed some knowledge of dental hygiene. A dental hygienist can use his or her knowledge and experience to accurately explain products to clients while encouraging them to buy the products.

    Sales representatives must communicate well and answer technical questions regarding their products. They assess the needs of their clients and determine what products will fill their needs most effectively.

    The educational requirements for a position in sales vary, but many require at least a bachelor's degree. Dental hygienists who work in sales may not be required to maintain their license, but they must remain current on trends, new products, and new technologies in their field.

    Careers in sales can be stressful because of the direct impact that job performance has on job security. Job performance may also affect your income if you are paid on commission. For high-achieving salespeople, this can be a rewarding method of payment. Bonuses are also common for sales representatives who meet or exceed the goals set by their company.
  • Dental Assisting. Dental office assistants work on billing and collections. They are sometimes required to develop and maintain the policies and procedures of the office, but the dentists are often involved in these decisions. They may assist with limited clinical procedures in addition to keeping track of paperwork, scheduling appointments and serving as receptionists.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

To become a Registered Dental Hygienist, you must fulfill the requirements of your state board and be licensed to practice in that state. All 50 states require dental hygienists to achieve this designation. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but most licensing bureaus expect applicants to have graduated from an accredited dental hygiene program and successfully completed a written and a clinical examination.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation, a division of the American Dental Association, accredits dental hygiene programs. There are more than 200 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States. Accredited programs are most frequently associate's degrees or greater.

Registered Dental Hygienists must renew their licenses by earning continuing education credits. State requirements vary, but most states require six to 10 credits per year to maintain licensure. Continuing education credits can usually be obtained by attending relevant courses, local association meetings, and American Dental Hygienist Association-sponsored events. In addition, state licensing boards usually require that dental hygienists maintain their CPR certification.

Certification for Canadian residents is similar to United States licensure. Each territory or province has a licensing board, and each has different requirements. Most require graduation from an accredited dental hygiene school, completion of a written examination and completion of a clinical examination.

Other Associations and Certification Bodies

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