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Registered Dental Hygienist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Dental hygienists are skilled healthcare workers who work in dentists' offices. They must be trained in techniques, skills and concepts related to dental care and may need to gain licensure. Their job duties center around cleaning patients' teeth and giving instruction in proper dental hygiene. This may be a good career for those who enjoy working directly with people and have an interest in healthcare jobs.

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Dental Hygienist Job Description

Dental hygienists work under the supervision of licensed dentists. They are not qualified to make the same kind of diagnostic decisions or perform the same procedures as dentists. Instead, they perform basic dental care tasks, mostly focused on keeping patients' teeth and gums clean. Unlike dental assistants, who work directly with dentists, hygienists often see patients on their own and direct their own tasks. They work in close physical proximity to their patients and spend a lot of work time around other people, including patients and other office staff.

Dental Hygienist Duties

Most hygienists' daily duties include removing plaque from and polishing a patient's teeth during a routine checkup, screening patients, reviewing a patient's oral health history and teaching appropriate brushing and flossing techniques. They also use X-ray machines to take pictures of the teeth and develop the film for the dentist's analysis.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists might be able to perform additional tasks depending on the rules and regulations governing the profession in their state (www.bls.gov). The additional tasks named by the BLS include administering anesthesia, removing stitches, sculpting materials to fill cavities and working with metal tooth components.

Dental Hygienist Requirements

To legally work as a dental hygienist in the United States, a person must obtain a license from the state where he or she will work. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association (www.adha.org), licensure in most states depends on graduating from an accredited degree program, passing a national exam for licensure and passing a state or region-specific exam.

Education Requirements

Aspiring dental hygienists can attend accredited programs at community colleges, vocational schools and universities. The BLS reports that credentials awarded by dental hygienist programs range from certificates to associate, bachelor's and master's degrees. The BLS says that the most common degree in dental hygiene programs is the associate degree, which may take two years of full-time study.

Required courses in dental hygiene programs often include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, clinical sciences and pharmacology. There are about 270 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association.

Requirements for Dental Hygiene School

Applicants to hygienist programs must have a high school diploma or equivalent and usually need to have excelled in biology, chemistry, math and health courses during high school, according to the American Dental Association (www.ada.org). Some bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene require students to have two years of junior college before applying.

Testing Requirements

To become a licensed dental hygienist, the graduate must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, which is a comprehensive written examination. Part of the test assesses the test-taker's knowledge of scientific principles and facts relating to dental hygiene. Another part asks the future hygienist to assess case study patients, based on charts and photographs, and select appropriate treatment for them.

After passing the national exam, the candidate usually must take a regional dental hygiene exam. This exam typically involves a demonstration of clinical skill. The candidate removes tartar, plaque or calculus from the teeth of an actual person. He or she also checks for pockets between teeth and gums, which would indicate possible infection or inflammation.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an annual median salary of $71,110 for dental hygienists. The BLS predicted much faster than average job growth of 33%, from 2012-2022, for these professionals.

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