What Is a Dental Hygienist?

I grew up in a small town where my dentist did teeth cleanings and check-ups. There was no dental hygienist on staff. Nowadays, thats not the case.

If you know nothing about a dental hygiene career and are considering going to school for it, I want to help you answer the question – what is a dental hygienist and what do they do? Well look at a dental hygienists education and job duties.

Registered, licensed professionals

Although states differ, a dental hygienist is often licensed and may called a registered dental hygienist (RDH) or licensed dental hygienist (LDH).

Their line of work is best described as preventive oral care.

In the US, dental hygienists need to go through an accredited program that can lead to an associate degree, a certificate, a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree.

When scouting for these programs, verify whether the school is accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA).

As you work your way through the program, you will complete book studies and clinical studies, working with patients.

After you successfully complete the program, you will need to take a written examination given by the National Board Dental Hygiene (NDBH).

You may also need to undergo the licensing requirement administered by the state licensing board where you intend to practice.

You will then become an RDH or LDH – depending on your state.

Where do dental hygienists work?

You will find hygienists working as clinicians, consultants, and instructors in hospitals, nursing homes, dental health clinics, dental product companies, corporate setting, and schools.

A bachelor’s or master’s is an option for you to further advance in your career. Career advancement opportunities include advanced dental hygiene practitioner (a.k.a. dental therapist), educator, administrator, and researcher.

What do dental hygienists do?

Services rendered by registered dental hygienists generally fall under the following categories:

  • Educate patients on developing good practices to achieve dental health. They provide instructions and information for oral hygiene and upkeep.
  • Conduct prophylactic oral care and assist patients maintain dental health. They take x-rays, apply fluoride, and conduct scaling and root planning.
  • Do corrective and therapeutic treatment for early signs of oral diseases. The purpose is to stop initial stages of disorders that might result to more complicated problems in the oral cavity. In some states, registered dental hygienists are even allowed to administer local anesthetics.

How dental hygienists typically perform dental care

Dental hygienists work with dentists and dental therapists to ensure the optimum oral health of patients.

A visit to the dental hygienist will give you an idea of their scope of work. The typical dental hygiene care follows these stages:

Evaluate the patient’s condition. The hygienist usually starts screening procedures.

This may involve taking or reviewing the patient’s medical and dental history, dental charting, taking x-rays and casting patient’s teeth and interpreting of same, oral cancer screening, examining vital signs, inspecting the head and neck, conducting clinical examination and probing the mouth for signs of periodontal or gum diseases.

The main purpose of this stage is to achieve an accurate assessment and documentation.

Offer dental hygiene diagnosis. The dental hygiene diagnosis is an integral part of the final diagnosis which the dentist in jurisdiction approves. The dental hygiene part gives the assessment of the dental and periodontal conditions, and other conditions observed during the evaluation.

Design a treatment plan for the patient. A customized plan will be drawn out to address the patient’s condition. The hygienist discusses this with the patient and plans out the schedule of ensuing visits to the clinic.

Carry out the plan. As discussed with the patient, the plan will be implemented following the schedule and manner.

This may include removal of calculus and plaque, application of sealants and fluorides, and administration of local anesthetics or nitrous oxide analgesics prior to procedures.

The patient will be counseled regarding home care, such as proper brushing and flossing, effects of smoking to oral health and how to stop the habit, and recommended diet.

A patient’s condition sometimes changes along the course of the treatment plan. The hygienist must know when and how to alter diagnosis and address emergent disorders.

Reevaluate the patient’s condition post-treatment. This will determine whether the course taken was effective. In the rare occasions when the implemented plan proves ineffective, there will be a need for reevaluation and different treatment approach.

Could it be the right career path for you?

A dental hygiene job could be the right career for you if you are the right person for it. It entails hard work and requires investment of time and money.

It can bring you prestige, personal satisfaction, flexible working conditions, and financial security.

Like other jobs, though, you have to develop discipline to hone your abilities, excel in your area of specialization, and deliver the service you are expected to provide.

You will find the following personal qualities helpful in pursuing this career path: perseverance, eagerness to learn, highly-developed interpersonal ability, and resilience under stress and tediousness.

And if you are not the type who gets nauseated at the slightest hint of blood or saliva, then you could actually be a good candidate.

I hope this answers the question – what is a dental hygienist?