Is a Dental Hygienist Career Right for You?

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 200,000 dental hygienists working in the United States today. As this occupation continues to grow, however, many Americans may not fully understand the role's responsibilities, what a dental hygienist career might entail or what he or she does to promote oral and total body health.

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a healthcare professional who provides educational, clinical and therapeutic dental care to the public, all while focusing on disease prevention through a healthy mouth. Dental hygienists often practice in private dental offices, seeing patients for assessments, routine preventive care and early gum disease management. Although regulations vary from state to state, the American Dental Hygienists' Association holds that most dental hygienists in the U.S. can also apply sealants and fluoride treatments, administer anesthetics to make procedures more comfortable and offer instructions that guide their patients on the road to making healthier choices through home care and nutritional value.

What Is a Typical Day Like?

A clinical dental hygienist generally sees between six and 10 patients per day in a private or specialty practice. Because most hygienists work in the general practice setting, these patients can range in age from infants to senior citizens. Nonetheless, the dental hygienist must be ready to assess each patient for issues such as gingivitis, dental decay and oral cancer – regardless of the nature of one's appointment. He or she also provides each patient with a tailor-made plan for improving or maintaining oral hygiene at home. These personal home-care instructions include recommendations for all forms of effective oral care products: mouthrinses, toothbrushes, floss and anti-cavity toothpastes such as Colgate Total® Advanced Deep Clean.

What Makes Them an Asset to the Practice?

A registered dental hygienist (RDH) needs a strong background in the social sciences, biological sciences and communications to be an effective member of a healthcare team. Colleges across the country offer different levels of education, though most dental hygiene programs offer an associate's degree. Still, others grant a bachelor or master degree to students upon graduation. On average, it takes three years of dental hygiene coursework to gain the entry-level skills necessary to apply for licensure.

How to You Become an RDH?

To obtain this licensure in the U.S., a dental hygienist graduates from a school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This means the school has undergone a specific process to prove its program properly trains each student to perform preventative dental care safely and effectively as a dental hygienist upon graduation. In many states, these students need to ultimately pass written boards and complete clinical boards on a live patient.

Where Else Can a Dental Hygienist Work?

A dental hygienist's career often involves work outside clinical practices, allowing RDHs to become insurance claims representatives or long-term or geriatric caregivers. They may also go on to work in public or community healthcare centers, hospitals, corporate dental businesses, educational facilities or research centers. It's a rewarding path that opens up many different doors, both for the patient and the prospective dental professional.