When you book an appointment for a routine dental cleaning, the dentist isn't the first to greet you when you arrive. Rather, the person who leads you back to the dental chair is the dental hygienist. What is a dental hygienist, though, if he or she isn't the one with whom you arranged your exam? Most dental practices have at least one dental hygienist on staff, and although a dentist can give your teeth an examination, working with a hygienist allows many dental practices to treat the most important issues more efficiently and to identify dental issues to bring to the dentist's attention during his examination.
When you make an appointment with your dentist, you can expect to see the dental hygienist for the following reasons:
What Hygienists Do
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the role of a dental hygienist can vary from state to state, as licensing requirements and regulations differ depending on where this professional chooses to practice. Although the specific services a dental hygienist can provide might be different from one state to the next, however, their purpose to the patient generally remains the same: A dental hygienist is responsible for cleaning your teeth, taking x-rays, removing tartar and plaque from their surfaces of teeth and implants and checking up on the overall state of your oral cavity.
Their Role in Your Visit
When you go to your dentist's office, your dental hygienist might ask you how your teeth and gums feel, and if you've had any issues with them lately. He or she might examine your mouth for conditions that warrant a report on anything the dentist should look at more closely. A hygienist will also usually take X-rays of your teeth and gums during this visit, provided that you're due for them. He or she might give you advice on the best way to brush your teeth as well, while recommending the use of toothpastes such as Colgate Total® Clean Mint toothpaste to better protect against gingivitis and cavities.
How They're Trained
Another big difference between a dentist and dental hygienist is the amount of education and training they need. Dentists need to complete a four-year college degree, then attend dental school for four years, whereas most hygienists complete a two-year associate's degree to provide the services that precede the dentist's big-picture exam. Dental hygienists can also obtain a bachelor or master degree depending on what type of career track they want to pursue. Training to become a hygienist includes both classroom study and clinical training, meaning a hygienist works directly with patients before he or she finishes school. After finishing this degree program, the hygienist undergoes a written and clinical exam, as well as similar material that demonstrates his or her skills to become licensed to practice.
What They Don't Do
Although a hygienist can be the friendly face of your dentist's office – and the person you turn to when you have questions about choosing a toothpaste, how to floss and other aspects of home care – they are licensed to do many responsibilities. However, a number of tasks can only be performed by your dentist. If you have a cavity that needs filling, for example, your dentist will perform this work, often with the assistance of the dental assistant by their side.
So, what is a dental hygienist? This member of the practice works under the supervision of a dentist, depending on the state the hygienist is working in, with the common goal of keeping your mouth and gums healthy. The job description and responsibilities of a hygienist are focused more on treatment and prevention of gum disease and overall oral health and wellness. Whereas those of a dentist are committed to treating and curing any dental issues that already exist. Both, however, offer a necessary balance to ensure you're provided the best care to provide a positive experience when you visit the office.