Most of us have heard of dentists. Fewer have heard of a dental hygienist — and even those that have heard of them might wonder what they do.
A dental hygienist is an important part of your dental team. In fact, you have probably worked closely with a dental hygienist without realizing it.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Most simply, hygienists provide full oral health care, focusing on the prevention and treatment of oral disease. They often work with a dentist, orthodontist, or other dental specialists, and may perform many tasks, including:
- Patient screening and intake procedures
- Taking and developing x-rays of your teeth (called radiographs)
- Basic cleaning of your teeth
- Applying sealants, fluorides, or other substances for preventing tooth decay
- Assisting with procedures in cosmetic dentistry
- Helping educate patients on proper oral care
Some specialized hygienists might also be licensed to administer local anesthesia or do sizing for braces and other orthodontic work. In smaller practices, hygienists might also help out with research and office work. It is quite likely that the first face you see when you walk into an office is that of a dental hygienist!
How Does a Dental Hygienist Differ from a Dentist?
Given all that they do, it is natural to wonder how a hygienist differs from a dentist, and what unique contributions they lend to a dental team.
One way to think of the difference is that between general care and specialized procedures. For example, a dental hygienist might do general teeth cleaning, which does not vary much from person to person. But it will be a dentist who diagnoses a cavity and gives you a filling. In general, dentists go through more education and training to do this (though, in some cases, a hygienist will have extensive amounts of education, too). Both professionals, however, go through extensive training and must earn a license to practice. This division of labor helps patients, too. Seeing a skilled dentist costs more per hour, so the more a dental hygienist can take care of a patient’s general needs, the less costly the overall visit will be.
It is likely, then, that much of your interaction will be with a hygienist, especially if you are visiting the office for a routine cleaning.
How Does a Person Become a Hygienist?
Typically, a person has to have an associates’ degree and go through two years of training before they can take the exam to become a licensed hygienist. The training period includes both classroom and lab time, as well as clinical experience in an actual practice. This training helps ensure that knowledgeable, dedicated professionals are in charge of the care of your teeth.
Here’s a fun fact: The first meeting of the American Dental Hygienist Association took place all the way back in 1923, which means that the profession has been around in its current form for almost 100 years. There are well over 230 accredited training programs nationwide for this career, and over 200,000 practitioners. The field tends to attract people who combine both caring, intelligence, and the ability to excel at several types of tasks.
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