What Does it Mean to Study Dental Assisting?
Dental hygiene is the healthy maintenance of the mouth, teeth and gums via brushing, flossing and periodic deep cleaning. A dental hygienist typically works in a dentist's office and assists patients with proper dental hygiene. In addition to cleaning and examining the mouth, teeth, and gums, dental hygienists are often responsible for a patient's mouth after the dentist puts in a filling -- polishing the filling and scraping cement from the tooth that has been filled. Because small tools are used to clean and examine teeth, dental hygienists must work well with their hands.
A dental assistant, on the other hand, usually works in the front of the dentist's office, greeting patients, making appointments and keeping records. They may perform some basic tasks in the exam room, but their main job is dealing with the administrative component of dentistry.
If you're interested in helping others achieve optimal dental health, then dental hygiene is a career path you should definitely consider. With any program in this field, you should be able to help others while performing in a rewarding career.
Types of Dental Assisting Degrees
Before you can be a dental hygiene or dental assisting major, it's important to understand the different educational paths available for the field and where they may lead. Also keep in mind that some schools offer online dental hygiene degree programs. While you may need to be in a work setting to complete the hands-on component of your education, these programs allow you the flexibility of completing parts of the curriculum in a web-based, digital format.
As you consider the prospect of becoming a dental hygiene major, here are the degree levels you may want to consider:
Students who wish to enter the workforce quickly may want to consider earning a technical certificate and finding work as a dental assistant. During a technical certificate program in dental assisting, you should have the opportunity to learn the basics about teeth and their structure, gums, and how to administer basic dental care.
Other topics typically include the proper methods for cleaning and flossing, along with how to prepare patients for a visit from the dentist. Part of the program should also be dedicated to the basics of front office dentistry, describing the administrative work that goes into any successful dentist's office.
Courses you are likely to take during this program include:
- Infection control
- General dentistry
- Dental materials
Dental hygienists typically complete a two-year associate degree program in dental hygiene before beginning their search for a career. These programs usually require both general education courses and courses geared to the specific field of dental hygiene. General education courses students take might include algebra, biology and chemistry. In addition to classroom materials, students should also dedicate time to learning hands-on skills in a workplace or laboratory setting.
Those who pursue an associate degree as a dental hygiene or dental assisting major should be ready to take a wide range of courses, such as:
- Dental anatomy
A Bachelor of Science in dental hygiene is typically a four-year program. As with an associate degree, a bachelor's degree program is meant to emphasize both general education courses and courses specific to dental hygiene.
Students entering a bachelor's degree program are required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. However, many dental hygienists with an associate degree or certificate enter bachelor's degree programs as well, looking for opportunities to expand their clinical expertise and help advance their careers. With a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, a dental hygienist may be able to earn a position as a health educator or in health care management. An increasing number of hygienists are choosing to earn their bachelor's degrees online via completion programs that are designed for associate degree holders who have already completed their clinical requirements.
Courses you should expect to take during a bachelor's program in dental hygiene include:
- Health management
- Allied health education
- Cleaning techniques
- History of dental medicine
- Oral anatomy
Graduate-level degrees in the field of dental hygiene are typically two-year programs that are meant to be completed after finishing a bachelor's degree program. The skills and prestige associated with earning a graduate degree in dental hygiene can help students to pursue higher-level positions in fields such as health care management or teaching, or faculty positions in dental hygiene programs and schools.
Master's programs tend to emphasize research, but they also require coursework. The following courses are often included as part of the curriculum for a master's program in dental hygiene:
- Health care management
- Lab instruction
- Clinical instruction
- Instructional strategies in dental hygiene education
- Contemporary issues in dental hygiene
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Dental Assisting?
If you're curious where becoming a dental assisting major can take you, you may be able to find your answer by researching available career paths. Here are some of the careers you can pursue after earning a dental hygiene or dental assisting degree, plus some of the general requirements for each.
Dental hygienists typically work in a dentist's office but can also be found in nursing homes, hospitals, and health clinics. During their work day, they may place fillings, apply dressings, remove stitches or 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, which also makes it possible for them to work in more than one office.
- 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 than, and do not require the same 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 usually involve handling paperwork and office logistics.
Generally speaking, 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.
- Most dental assistants can earn the education they need with on-campus or online certificate programs.
- Dental assistants do not need to be licensed or certified.
Dental Health Educators
Dental hygienists are educators by nature, tasked with teaching their patients the importance of proper dental care. After earning 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 health educator may teach students in elementary school or at colleges or universities. They may also be able to find employment through community organizations or even government agencies.
In elementary and secondary schools, dental health educators 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.
- Health educators should earn at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level work.
- Some employers require the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential.
Medical and Health 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 likely be interested in hiring a salesperson who possessed some knowledge of dental hygiene. Such a person could use his or her knowledge and experience to accurately explain the product to clients who might be interested in purchasing it.
Sales representatives must communicate well and be able to answer technical questions regarding their products. They are responsible for assessing the needs of their clients and determining which products will fill their needs most effectively.
- The educational requirements for a position in medical 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 should remain current on trends, new products and new technologies in their field.
Associations and Organizations
While not all dental assisting or hygiene jobs require certification, students and employees can still benefit from earning advanced credentials, especially those who have little or no hands-on dental hygiene experience. Here are some of the organizations and associations you should get to know before you earn a dental assisting degree:
- American Association of Public Health Dentistry -- This organization offers resources for dentists, dental hygienists and other professionals in the field of oral health. They also offer continuing education opportunities.
- American Dental Association -- As America's leading advocate for oral health, the ADA offers research, continuing education and other perks for members of the dental industry. They also offer information on state-specific licensing requirements.
- American Dental Assistant Association -- This association offers industry-specific training and resources for dental assistants and those who hire them. They also offer continuing education opportunities.
- American Dental Hygienists' Association -- This organization offers a wide range of resources for dental hygienists, including conferences, educational opportunities, research and more. They also offer information on state-specific licensing requirements.
- Dental Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-26 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm#tab-1
- Dental Assisting, Ivy Tech Community College, https://www.ivytech.edu/dental-assisting/
- Dental Hygiene BS, University of Pittsburgh, http://www.cgs.pitt.edu/academics/majors/dental-hygiene-bs
- Dental Hygiene Program, PIMA Medical Institute, https://pmi.edu/programs/associate/dental-hygiene
- Graduate Program in Dental Hygiene, the Ohio State University College of Dentistry, https://dentistry.osu.edu/prospective-students/dental-hygiene-programs/graduate-program-dental-hygiene
- Health Educators and Community Health Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-26 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm#tab-1
- Medical and Health Services Managers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-26 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Management/Medical-and-health-services-managers.htm