Dental Hygienists Job Description and Salary
Dental hygienists work with dentists to provide dental care, performing procedures that help patients maintain healthy gums and teeth.
They also offering instruction to dental patients about what they can do to maintain dental health, which research has shown has a direct relationship to overall health.
According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have shown a link between dental health and diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
In some cases, improper oral hygiene can allow bacteria from the mouth to enter the bloodstream, affecting other parts of the body. Also, the condition of the teeth and gums can be an indicator of problems elsewhere in the body.
An increase in the focus on dental care is behind the predicted rise in the need for dental hygienists.
Job Duties for Dental Hygienists
A patient going to the dentist for a regular check-up will likely spend most of the session with the hygienist. Hygienists handle most of the basic tasks such as examinations, cleanings and X-rays.
In some cases, hygienists also place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings and periodontal dressings. State regulations determine if hygienists are allowed to perform these tasks.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a dental hygienist’s primary duties include:
• Removing tartar, stains and plaque from teeth
• Applying sealants and fluorides that help protect teeth
• Taking and developing dental x rays
• Keeping track of patient care and treatment plans
• Teaching patients oral hygiene, such as proper brushing and flossing
• Taking saliva samples which can be used in early detection of cancer
Work Environment for Dental Hygienists
Hygienists work almost exclusively in dentists’ offices, working one on one with patients to develop oral health plans, including proper ways to brush and floss. Hygienists also help patients understand the connection between diet and oral health.
Health and safety are of primary concern for dental hygienists, who wear gloves, surgical masks and safety glasses to protect themselves and patients from disease.
Dental hygienists must be familiar with and able to use equipment such as x-ray machines and various hand and powered tools employed to clean and polish the patient’s teeth.
Dental Hygienists Salary and Jobs Outlook
New technology which helps diagnose oral health issues, as well as increasing knowledge of the link between oral health and overall health, are spurring an increase in the demand for dental hygienists.
Further, advances in dental health care mean that patients keep their teeth longer than in the past, also fueling the need for dental hygienists.
More dentists are leaving routine dental care to hygienists, another reason for the increased demand in the field.
The BLS predicts an increase of 38% for this occupation by 2020, well above average for all occupations.
In May 2010, the median annual salary of dental hygienists was $68,250. Pay and benefits can vary greatly. For example, in 2010, only about 38% of dental hygienists worked full-time, meaning many of them were not eligible for benefits such as vacation and retirement fund contributions.
Some part-time hygienists work for more than one dentist, increasing their earning potential.
Depending on the employer, hygienists are paid hourly wages, by commission or are salaried.
Dental Hygienists Education Requirements and Training Programs
Typically, an associate’s degree in dental hygiene is needed for entry into the field. Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed, although specific education requirements vary by state. Most states require a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program, as well as passing written and practical examinations.
Most dental hygienists programs offer laboratory, clinical and classroom instruction, as well as courses in anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography and periodontology, the study of gum disease.
High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should focus on biology, chemistry and mathematics.
Research, teaching and clinical practice in school or public health programs requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
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