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Dental Hygienists and Assistants

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Let's follow a dental hygienist and dental assistant through a typical day.

Heather the hygienist spends her day performing dental cleanings, removing soft and hard deposits on teeth and examining teeth and gums, looking for signs of abnormalities or disease.  She sometimes performs parts of periodontal therapy and applies sealants or fluoride treatments to teeth.  It's also common for her to take x-rays and develop them and to prepare diagnostic tests which are administered by the dentist.

Meanwhile, next door, Annie the assistant tries to make the dentist's patients comfortable in the chair, preparing them for treatment, and also getting their dental records.  She spends much time handing materials and instruments to the dentist and keeping the patients' mouths clear and dry through use of suction and other devices.  She is careful to disinfect and sterilize the dental instruments and she also prepares tray setups.  A few times during the day, she'll also expose radiographs, remove sutures, remove excess cement that was used for fillings, and apply anesthetics to gums.

As you can see, both hygienists and assistants are important parts of the dentist's everyday work.  The hygienists is in high demand within general dentists' practices as well as specialty practices like pediatric dentistry and periodontics.  There is also a possible career path for those interested in providing hygiene services for patients at local hospitals, clinics and nursing homes.
Hygienists are in demand in general dental practices and in specialty practices such as periodontics or pediatric dentistry. They also may be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes and public health clinics.

There are even more career possibilities for dental assistants, with dozens of possible career paths. Part of the open field is due to the fact that many dentists employ multiple assistants .  Some of the settings where you as an assistant might work include solo practices, group practices, specialty practices (for example, removing teeth, correcting facial deformities, orthodontics, dentofacial orthopedics, root canal treatment, treatment of gum problems, replacing lost teeth, children's dentistry, public health dentists, and hospital dental clinics.

But we're not through.  Other possible career paths for dental assistants include processing insurance claims, working for technical institutes, vocational schools and community college dental schools, and selling dental products.

A dental hygienist's education normally comes through programs at technical colleges, community colleges, and some at universities and dental schools.  Most programs require a minimum of two years for completion, culminating in an associates degree. This degree will allow her to take a dental hygienist licensing exam. Numerous study guides and study help for the dental hygienist exam are available.

A university hygiene program will also offer a bachelor's and master's degree program, requiring two or four more years of extra schooling.

Each individual state licenses their hygienists.  To receive the license, most states require that the candidates graduate from accredited programs.  After the dental hygienist receives her license, she is entitled to use “RDH” after her name, for “registered dental hygienist.”

Education for the dental assistant takes a shorter average time than for the hygienist.  They get their training usually through vocational schools, community colleges, technical institutes, and sometimes from dental schools and universities.   Normally these program graduates will receive certificates.  A dental assistant may become officially certified by passing a test which evaluates their knowledge of relevant subjects.  The main dental assistant certification exam is offered by the Dental Assisting National Board.  A dental assistant is eligible to take the exam after they have completed a assisting program accredited by the CDA  (Commission on Dental Accreditation).  Those who have graduated from a non-accredited program who received on-the-job training may take the exam once they've finished two years of fulltime work as dental assistants.

So did you know so much was involved in being a dental hygienist or assistant?  It seems Heather and Anne took great strides to prepare for their chosen careers.  We're confident, however, that they feel it's been worth it, as both are in two of the nation's growing career fields.


Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist Certification

Certifed Dental Assistant Study Guide
Dental Hygienist (NBDHE)

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State Specific Dental Assisting Information
More Dental Assistant Career Information (Wikipedia)
Legislation affecting Dental Assistants