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The Dental Hygienist Career Choice

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For those who are interested in helping people in a medical atmosphere, choosing to become a dental hygienist can be a rewarding and challenging career.

Duties of a Dental Hygienist

The dental hygienist works together with the dentist to meet the oral health needs of patients. While the dentist is generally responsible for the more difficult and complex procedures, the hygienist is responsible for a wide range of duties that may include:

  • Taking and developing dental x-rays
  • Initial examination of patient to determine general oral health conditions
  • Review of health history and dental charting
  • Performing routine maintenance cleaning and plaque removal from all surfaces of the teeth
  • Applying sealants and fluorides to teeth for preventative maintenance
  • Discussing oral hygiene strategies with patients, helping them to develop proper tooth brushing, flossing, and nutritional habits
  • Making molds for crowns and dental prosthetics
  • Polishing fillings and other metal restorations
  • Chair-side work to assist the dentist during procedures
Besides these duties, the dental hygienist may also be responsible for office management duties and entering patient documentation to records and on the computer.

Training & Education

To begin this career track, prospective dental hygienists must become licensed by the state where they intend to practice. To apply for a license, the individual must earn a degree from an accredited dental hygiene school and pass the state licensure examination. Schools become accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation. In order to be accepted into a dental hygienist program, some schools require one year of college, while other programs accept entrants with a high school diploma.

The training program offered by a dental school is the equivalent of earning a bachelor's degree from a university. Some dental schools do grant the graduate a bachelor's degree, although many schools offer a certificate of completion. University-based programs may offer a master’s degree, which generally requires at least two years of further schooling. Courses in dental hygienist programs include extensive laboratory and clinical training. Classroom instruction includes the following subjects: nutrition, anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, physiology, pharmacology, radiography, histology, periodontology (the study of gum diseases), dental materials and instruments, dental hygiene, and behavioral sciences.

Because hygienists deal directly with patients who may be experiencing varying levels of anxiety, the prospective hygienist should possess excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They should have the ability to reassure and calm a patient, and possibly reiterate any instructions or procedures that the dentist has explained. The dental hygienist must also have excellent manual dexterity and vision because they work with dental instruments within a patient’s mouth.

Employment Outlook

The services provided by dental hygienists are needed and valued by much of the population. According to US Department of Labor statistics, this is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, and job prospects are expected to remain positive well into the next decade.

Employment numbers for dental hygienist careers are projected to increase by 30 percent between now and 2016. This rate is much faster than the national average for occupational growth. The reasons for such an increase include population growth, elderly people retaining more teeth, and more of a focus on preventative dental care. Dentists are also giving more of their duties over to the hygienist than they did in the past. Because of this, most dental offices now employ more full-time hygienists than in previous years. Older dentists, who didn’t employ hygienists, are now retiring and making way for the latest generation of dentists, who believe that having one or more hygienist practicing in the office is commonplace.

In 2006 there were 167,000 dental hygienists practicing in offices throughout the United States. According to Department of Labor projections, there will be over 215,000 by 2016.

Earning Potential

The annual salary of dental hygienists varies according to the specific position, duties, and geographical location of employment, but in comparison to other medical careers with a two-year degree the hygienist generally enjoys an excellent rate of pay.

Median hourly earnings in 2006 were reported at over $30. At the lower end, the hourly rate was over $19, and the top 10 percent earned over $41 per hour. Some dental hygienists are paid a salary, while others earn a commission in addition to their hourly wage. Many hold more than one job since many positions are part time. Benefits vary, but according to the American Dental Association (ADA) more than 85 percent of all dental hygienists receive medical benefits.

Other Opportunities

Other dental jobs that are very similar to that of the dental hygienist include dental assistant careers. There is different training for each job and each is licensed to perform different clinical duties. While hygienists receive most or all of their training from an accredited dental school or university, many dental assistants learn their skills on the job.

Earnings for a dental assistant are considerably lower than a hygienist. The average hourly wage in 2006 was just over $14 per hour.

The futures of both the hygienist and the dental assistant look excellent, and with the prestige and respect that come from working in the medical field, either choice will prove to be a satisfying career.
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