Dental hygiene is the profession of cleaning teeth and helping patients maintain oral health. Dental hygienists are licensed professionals—key members of the dental health care team who provide educational, clinical, and therapeutic dental services, such as preventive care, dental examinations, and instruction about how patients can better care for their teeth and gums.
Dental hygienists are trained to provide dental hygiene care for patients, they work with dentists to deliver oral care to patients, and they use their interpersonal skills to educate and motivate patients about how to prevent dental disease and maintain oral health. In the clinical setting, dental hygienists:
- Assess patients' teeth and gums and review oral histories.
- Educate patients about nutrition and self-care to prevent dental disease, teaching them how to clean the mouth using aids such as toothbrushes, interdental devices, and other efficacious products.
- Examine head, neck and dental areas for disease.
- Perform x rays and other diagnostic tests.
- Perform preventive dental services, such as removing calculus, stains and plaque from teeth, to keep the teeth and gums healthy.
- Screen for oral cancer and high blood pressure.
- Educate patients about oral health and its link to general health.
- Place and remove periodontal dressings or temporary fillings.
- Make impressions of teeth to use as models for dentists to evaluate treatment needs.
- Apply preventive agents such as sealants and fluorides to keep teeth healthy.
- Remove sutures.
In administrative roles, dental hygienists consult with dental health or insurance companies, market dental products, and initiate community dental health programs. Dental hygienists also hold positions at colleges and universities, where they teach dental hygiene or conduct clinical research. Another area of opportunity is in public health, where dental hygienists provide health policy, program administration and management; research community-based care methods; focus on oral health promotion and disease prevention; and help assess, develop, evaluate, and initiate oral health care delivery systems. In these capacities they often have little or no direct individual patient contact.
Dental hygiene is a profession that requires its practitioners to work closely with patients, earning their trust, maintaining a high level of oral care, and teaching them
|Examples of services provided by dental hygienists|
|Types of services||Purpose||Individual||Family||Community|
|SOURCE: Alvarez, K.H. Williams & Wilkins' Dental Hygiene Handbook. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1998.|
|Preventive: Primary||To prevent disease occurrence||Sealants||Counsel parents on prevention of baby-bottle tooth decay||Promote water flouridation|
|Preventive: Secondary||Early treatment to prevent disease progression||Plaque/calculus removal||Counsel on harmful oral habits||Oral screening and referrals|
|Educational||Guide to good health behaviors||Home care instruction||Nutritional counseling||Oral health units in schools|
|Therapeutic||Stop or control disease and maintain healthy oral tissues||Scaling/root planing Postoperative care||Smoking cessation, counseling||Sealant programs Fluoridation of water supply|
the skills they need to stay healthy. Providing these valuable services usually fosters a tremendous sense of personal fulfillment. Dental hygiene is a highly skilled, prestigious discipline with room for advancement. Flexible hours and work environments make the work attractive. Dental hygienists have little problem finding full- or part-time work during daytime, evening and weekend hours in almost every area of the world. Many also enjoy the job security that dental hygiene offers. Rapid advances in preventive dentistry combined with an aging and growing population ensures that dental hygienists will be busy for the foreseeable future.
Dental hygienists usually work in private dental practices. However, other employment settings include health maintenance organizations, long-term care facilities, schools, military bases, universities, research facilities, governmental agencies, dental supply companies, or in veterinary dental medicine.
Education and training
Dental hygienists are licensed oral health care professionals who have either a two-year diploma, certificate, or associate degree in dental hygiene or a four-year baccalaureate degree. They are educated through community college academic programs, technical colleges, dental schools, or universities. Dental hygienists should work well with others and have good manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination to use dental instruments in the small area of a person's mouth.
Students in dental hygiene programs receive laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, nutrition, radiography, histology, periodontology, pathology, dental materials, dental hygiene theory and practice, and social and behavioral sciences.
Dental hygienists must be licensed in the jurisdiction in which they practice. To become licensed, dental hygienists must have graduated from an accredited dental hygiene school and passed written and clinical examinations. Accredited dental hygiene programs require an average of 2,000 curriculum hours, including 585 hours of supervised clinical dental hygiene instruction. Two-year associate's degrees allow dental hygienists to take national, state, or regional license examinations.
Usually, an associate's degree is qualification enough for those who want to practice in a private dental office. High school students considering a career in dental hygiene should consider taking such courses as health, biology, psychology, chemistry, mathematics, and speech. Some baccalaureate degree programs require that applicants first complete two years of college before being accepted into dental hygiene programs. About half of the dental hygiene programs prefer applicants who have completed at least one year of college. Students or school counselors should contact individual programs for their requirements.
Advanced education and training
Dental hygienists who go into research, education, or administration usually need a master's degree in dental hygiene. Those oral hygienists who choose to go into public health dental hygiene usually must pursue graduate public health education at both schools of public health and dentistry.
Dental hygiene is projected to be among the 30 fastest growing occupations due to the increasing population and people's longer retention of their natural teeth.
In fact, the career path is expected to grow much faster than average through 2008. Salaries of dental hygienists are based on their responsibilities and specific positions, the geographic location of employment, and their type of work environment. They are similar to those of other health care personnel with similar education and experience. In 1998 dental hygienists earned median hourly wages of $22.06. The middle 50% earned between $17.28 and $29.28 an hour. The lowest 10% earned less than $12.37; the highest 10% earned more than $38.81 an hour.
Proper dental hygiene clinical attire
Outer garments (gowns, lab coats, scrub suits, uniforms) should adequately cover arms and street clothing. They should be disposable or laundered commercially (not taken home or worn outside the clinic).
The face mask should block out particles as small as microns and have a lining impenetrable to moisture. The mask should cover the nose and mouth and fit comfortably under glasses, if worn. Change the face mask before each patient and wear for no longer than 1 hour.
Protective eyewear should be worn by both the patient and client. The eye-wear should be shatterproof, lightweight, easily disinfected, and provide wide coverage with side shields.
Gloves should be strong and durable, and impermeable to saliva, blood, and bacteria. The gloves should be nonirritating or harmful to skin and fit properly.
Jewelry should not be worn on hands and wrists to minimize areas for microorganisms.
SOURCE: Alvarez, K.H. Williams & Wilkins' Dental Hygiene Handbook. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1998.
Histology—Study of tissue structure.
Periodontology—Study of gum disease.
Plaque—Colorless, sticky film composed of acid and bacteria, which causes tooth decay.
American Dental Association. 211 E. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 440-2806. <http://www.ada.org>.
American Dental Education Association (ADEA). 1625 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036-2212. 202-667-9433. http://www.adea.org.
American Dental Hygienists' Association. 444 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 3400, Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 440-8900. http://www.adha.org.
Commission on Dental Accreditation. 211 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. 312-440-2718. firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Division of Information Services. "Occupational Outlook Handbook." http://stats.bls.gov/ocohome.htm?LNav