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Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist, Which Role To Choose?

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Dental Hygienist taking an x-ray

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Dental assistants (DA) and dental hygienists (DH) have vital roles in dental practice. While a dental assistant does administrative and clinical work under a dentist's supervision, a dental hygienist can provide preventive dental care in an unsupervised capacity. The employment outlook for both is positive.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

A DA handles the administrative duties in a dentist's office. These include maintaining patient records, scheduling their appointments, and dealing with billing and insurance. The DA may use Dentrix, Eaglesoft, or other dental software for this. Most DAs need to have a basic knowledge of dental medicine and equipment, and they'll have to order new supplies when needed.

As part of their clinical duties, they prepare the treatment room, clean and sterilize the various tools and equipment, and assemble other dental materials. They also make teeth casts and expose and develop X-rays. DAs stand beside the dentist and the dental hygienist while they are examining and attending to the patient and hand them the tools and other dental materials they need and perform the suctioning. To do this, an understanding of the sequence of dental procedures is necessary.

For their patient-related work, DAs are responsible for greeting patients, recording their arrival, showing them to the dentist chair, and draping them. As DAs have to deal directly with patients, it is essential to have decent interpersonal and communication skills to do well in this role. You should be able to interact with different personalities and correctly explain the treatment as well as the procedure to follow for dental preventive care.

It is a plus if you are fluent in multiple languages to make interactions easier with people from different national backgrounds. It will also help to have a compassionate attitude to put patients at ease.

Of course, a DA's specific duties will depend on the requirements of their dental facility. Each state in the United States also has rules about what a DA can or cannot do. For instance, in some states, they can perform duties like cleaning teeth that are generally undertaken by dental hygienists.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

While DHs may work under the supervision of a dentist, they also have the training and capability to work independently to examine patients, diagnose their condition, and provide preventive dental care. The dental hygiene procedures that DHs typically perform include:

  • Treating patients for gingivitis and other oral diseases
  • Removing plaque and tartar
  • Cleaning stains from teeth
  • Applying protective sealants to teeth
  • Providing fluoride treatment
  • Administering anesthetics before dental procedures and surgery
  • Removing sutures after dental procedures and surgery
  • Making molds of patients' teeth for treatment evaluation
  • Taking and processing dental X-rays

For many of their dental procedures, DHs use hand tools, drills, ultrasonic equipment, and X-rays. Manual dexterity and being attentive to detail are essential traits for DHs. As they have to stand a lot while attending to patients, they must have adequate physical stamina, too.

Additionally, DHs provide the necessary educational information to patients so that they can follow a preventive care regimen and maintain proper dental health. That can include advising them on the correct brushing and flossing techniques and the types of toothbrushes they should use. As nutrition plays a role in oral health, the DHs also inform patients about the right diet to follow.

As in the case of a DA, a DH's duties depend on the dental facility they work in and their state regulations. Another common factor is that DHs work closely with patients too, and so they must have sound interpersonal and communication skills. They must be able to clearly and accurately explain the various dental treatments and procedures to the patients. They also need to have a compassionate attitude to deal well with patients of different ages and personalities, and, in many cases, to ease their anxiety about their dental treatment.

What Are the Educational Qualifications for a Dental Assistant?

The educational qualification requirements for DAs will vary according to state and employer. While some dental health employers don't require formal qualifications for the DA position, others will want candidates to have at least a high school diploma. The work training in such cases will be on-the-job. You are likely to benefit more career-wise, however, from getting a certification, diploma, or associate degree in dental assisting. The dental assistant program at Concorde is eight months and includes externship training.

In some states DAs need to get a legal license before they can practice. It is not mandatory everywhere, however. You should check with the American Dental Association to find out the licensing regulations in your state.

To find work as a DA, it will help to put together a detailed resume that highlights your educational qualifications as well as any other job-relevant skills. For instance, if you know multiple languages, are proficient in software programs, and have strong communication abilities, you need to mention that in your DA resume.

What Are the Educational Qualifications for a Dental Hygienist?

To work as a DH, you will need to have at least an associate degree from an accredited dental school. Some employers prefer candidates to have a bachelor's degree or a master's degree, so, if you get these, you will have more possibilities for career expansion. The DH associate program at Concorde can be completed in as few as 176 months, but the program length may be longer at some locations. Generally, the longer the dental course, the higher the fee payment.

You can check out the Dental Hygiene program in Concorde. Along with offering practicals skills in dental hygiene, you will also learn to review patient histories and carry out risk assessments.

After obtaining your degree, you will need to also get a state license from the dental board of your state. That will involve passing a written and clinical exam. A DH license is required in order to legally practice as a dental hygienist. The licensing requirements can vary in different U.S. states, so you ought to check these with your state board.

The job field can be competitive, so you should boost your chances with a well-prepared resume. As a resume acts as your first introduction to the employer, it will help to keep it concise and easy to skim, and be sure to highlight your experience as well as key strengths and skills. Like with a DA, it is beneficial for a DH to have language and computer skills as well as an in-depth understanding of dental procedures.

What Is the Career Outlook for a Dental Assistant?

The career outlook for a DA is positive. With growing awareness of the link between maintaining good oral health and staying healthy generally, the demand for DAs in dental facilities is going up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there could be a projected 11% growth in DA jobs in the 2018-2028 period (1).

To get started in a dental career, many DAs will either get hands-on training or they may complete formal programs. For example, in the program available at Concorde, a student can earn a Dental Assistant diploma in as few as eight months, though program length may vary by campus. In some U.S. states, you may also need to get a license and participate in continuing study programs.

DAs may complete additional training in basic dentistry, which can allow them to perform intra-oral duties like taking teeth impressions, polishing teeth, and carrying out dental radiography.

Dental assisting work, which mainly comprises of administrative and clinical duties under the supervision of the dentist, can be challenging and sometimes stressful. You must be able to stay calm and deal with all types of people, ease their anxieties, and resolve conflicts regarding schedules or treatments. After gaining experience as a DA, you may be able to transfer your administrative skills to work in different management roles in other industries.

Most dental assistants work in office settings and have regular work hours.

What Is the Career Outlook for a Dental Hygienist?

As in the case of DAs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also projects DH careers to experience an 11% growth in the 2018-2028 period (2). With an aging population and new advances in the field of dentistry, the demand for dental healthcare workers could skyrocket.

While an associate degree is the minimum required to become a dental hygienist, you might need to get a bachelor's or master's degree for professional advancement. All U.S. states require DHs to obtain a license after passing a written and clinical exam. You will have to renew this license periodically by participating in continuing education programs that will help you to stay updated on new dental technologies and treatment methods.

Most DHs generally work in an office setting in a dental facility. They may also work in hospitals, and some DHs may work independently and provide their services to different dental clinics. Often, DHs experience job-related stress due to long working hours, the demanding nature of the work, and having to deal with difficult patients. Many, however, manage to find a good work-life balance.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Which Role Is Right For You?

While it is not possible for anyone to guarantee the availability of work opportunities in the dental field, Concorde offers graduate assistance in resume preparation and interviewing techniques, as well as information about potential DA or DH job opportunities. Which position a student decides to pursue is, of course, a personal choice that should be made after a good deal of research on specific job requirements, key responsibilities/role, and basics/duties.

You might want to consider the educational qualifications required for both roles and the time and cost factors for obtaining the degree or the certification. A DA's position might be ideal for someone who is looking for a more affordable education budget or who wants to get a dental industry job as soon as possible. In many states, you can get hands-on training as a DA, and the work experience can lead to additional job opportunities.

To become a DH, you may have to spend at least 17 months for an associate degree — the program length can vary by location — before you can get started. Obtaining a state license is also mandatory for working legally in all U.S. states.

Additionally, you should consider if you prefer administrative or clinical work and if you are comfortable working in an unsupervised capacity or need to refer to an overseeing authority. In both cases, you should be ready to interact closely with people. If you don't have decent communication and interpersonal skills, you will have to work at improving those.

Finally, whichever role you choose, you can look forward to a stable career in a comfortable working environment and enjoy flexible schedules, part-time job opportunities, and work benefits.

Conclusion

While a dental clinic needs both a DA and a DH, the roles differ by education, and job requirements. It is possible to complete training as a dental assistant in order to start a dental career in as few as eight months. On the other hand, you cannot become a dental hygienist without having at least an associate degree, and your career prospects may increase if you have a bachelor's degree or a master's degree.

Additionally, DHs cannot practice without getting a state license. Both roles, however, require candidates to have physical stamina, strong communication skills, and computer literacy. Furthermore, as far as long-term career prospects are concerned, the job outlook remains positive for DAs as well as DHs.


Footnotes 1. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Assistants, Summary," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm 2. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Hygienists, Summary," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm

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