How To Become a Dental Hygienist - Job Description, Requirements, Career
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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
A dental hygienist is a healthcare professional whose job is to keep patients’ teeth free from plaque and tartar. Dental hygiene is not only essential for oral and overall health but is also vital to good personal care and wellbeing.
Dental hygienists work together with dentists to promote the health of the teeth, gums and periodontal tissues and to provide patients with comprehensive dental care. Dental hygienists typically enjoy a greater degree of autonomy in their work than dental assistants, who usually work under the supervision of a dentist. However, their specific scope of practice can vary widely from country to country.
The main job of a dental hygienist is to carry out periodic professional dental cleanings. This typically involves the removal (or scaling) of hard tartar deposits and soft bacterial plaque deposits from the teeth and gums. Plaque and tartar, which form on teeth and gums, are the principal enemies of good oral hygiene. If not removed, they can lead to complications such as halitosis (bad breath), dental caries, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and periodontal disease (gum disease). Scaling is followed by a procedure to remove stains from the teeth, using an abrasive, whitening paste or powder and subsequently by teeth polishing. The final step of a professional dental cleaning session by a dental hygienist is fluoride treatment, which involves the application of a topical fluoride to the teeth for the purpose of strengthening the teeth enamel.
During cleaning, hygienists examine the patient’s teeth and mouth for signs of disease or other dental problems. If any are detected, the patient can be booked in to have the problem treated by the dentist. Dental hygienists may sometimes assist dentists with the compilation of dental records, which set out a patient’s dental health status and indicate any dental treatment he or she has been prescribed.
Dental hygienists may also carry out a number of other procedures prescribed by a dentist, including the application of dental sealants, desensitization treatments for patients suffering from dental hypersensitivity and whitening treatments for cosmetic purposes.
A dental hygienist’s tasks at a dental practice or surgery may also include jobs of an administrative nature, such as updating the dental records of patients and managing appointments.
Dental hygienists also carry out various prevention and awareness-raising activities with regard to oral hygiene, including demonstrating to patients the correct use of a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and dental picks, underlining the importance of regular professional dental care and offering advice on diets and lifestyles that will help prolong the effects of professional dental cleaning. In some cases, dental hygienists may also carry out educational activities in schools, colleges and other education settings.
Dental hygienists mainly work in private dental practices and surgeries, although others may be employed in hospitals, clinics and residential care settings.
Dental hygienists use a range of instruments to remove the plaque, tartar and bacteria that build up on teeth and gums, including both hand-activated instruments, such as periodontal curettes and power-driven tartar removal tools, such as ultrasonic scalers. They also employ a wide range of other manual instruments for performing preventative dental treatments and other procedures.
Dental hygienists are required to wear special protective clothing while working, including a face mask, gloves and safety glasses. They must also ensure their work is carried out in compliance with the applicable regulations on safety and hygiene concerning, for example, the sterilization of all equipment and instruments, the cleaning and sanitisation of all work areas and the washing and disinfection of the dental chair and all other fixtures.
The working hours of dental hygienists typically follow those of the dentists they work with and tend on the whole to be fairly stable.
Part time positions are widely available.
Dental Hygienist: Duties and Responsibilities
The main tasks of a dental hygienist include:
- Cleaning teeth and removing dental tartar and bacterial plaque
- Removing stains and whitening teeth
- Applying sealants and topical fluoride treatments
- Examining the oral cavity to check patients’ oral health
- Preventive activities against tooth and gum disease
- Educating patients on effective oral hygiene
- Developing personalized oral hygiene plans for patients, in collaboration with dentists
- Taking dental impressions and x-rays of teeth
- Recording patient dental treatment plans
How to Become a Dental Hygienist - Education, Requirements and Training
To become a dental hygienist requires formal healthcare training, such as a diploma in dental hygiene. Dental hygiene courses address a range of topics, including anatomy, pathophysiology, tooth morphology, oral hygiene, diseases of the oral cavity, periodontology and oral and maxillofacial radiology. They also include some practical experience - typically in the form of a placement at a dental hospital or practice - to enable students to learn how to use dental instruments correctly and to build effective relationships with patients. A good chairside manner will help dental hygienists educate patients on good oral hygiene, correct any bad habits they may have and show them how to brush and floss correctly.
After completing their training, it is essential for dental hygienists to keep informed of the latest changes and developments in oral hygiene materials, tools and techniques.
In some countries, there may be a legal requirement for dental hygienists to obtain a license before they can practice.
Dental Hygienist Skills
Dental hygienists are typically required to have the following skills:
- Knowledge of professional dental hygiene instruments and methods
- Strong manual skills
- Precision, attention and concentration
- Organizational skills
- Interpersonal skills and good chairside manner
- Professionalism and reliability
Dental Hygienist Career Path
What's the career outlook of a dental hygienist and what to expect?
Dental hygienists enjoy a range of career options, including specializing in dental hygiene and prevention for specific groups, such as children, the elderly or the disabled.
In addition, given the growing awareness of the importance of dental prevention and prophylaxis, dental hygienists may choose to undertake training to deliver oral health education in schools and other education settings.
An alternative career option for a dental hygienist is to utilize their experience and knowledge in a sales job with a manufacturer of dental instruments and supplies, providing clients with expert advice and assistance.
Top Reasons to Work as a Dental Hygienist
One of the main attractions of a career in dental hygiene is the opportunity to provide an important service, helping to prevent oral diseases such as gingivitis, as well as to improve the overall health of patients. Another key appeal of the work is the educational aspect - i.e. instructing patients on the importance of regular dental checkups and encouraging them to practice good oral hygiene habits at home. In addition to strong communication and listening skills, dental hygienists therefore need the ability to engage with people and build relationships based on trust.
Additional advantages of the role of dental hygienist include a significant degree of flexibility - given the widespread availability of part time opportunities - and the possibility of gaining secure employment in a broad variety of settings, including private dental practices, clinics, public hospitals, educational institutions and dental product manufacturers.