The Difference Between a Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist

dental assistant dental hygienist

What Are the Differences Between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?

Dental office careers are a great way to explore the health care field while still enjoying fairly regular office hours with nights and weekends off. These primarily office-based jobs allow you to promote good oral health in as little as nine months of training, with great job stability and an outlook expected to increase over the next ten years.

However, although these two jobs are often used interchangeably, they are very different professions. If you’re interested in going to health care school and are considering a dental specialty, it’s a good idea to determine which path is right for you before you sign up for classes.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

A dental assistant is basically a dentist’s right hand, providing support during major dental repairs and doing much of the prep work for seeing patients. General tasks include:

  • Taking and developing x-rays
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Taking dental impressions or making models of the teeth
  • Providing good oral health education information
  • Administrative duties related to processing insurance or making appointments

Licensing and/or a degree aren’t required to become a dental assistant, although many dental offices prefer that you have some type of training in a formal setting. Dental assistant programs last anywhere from nine months up to a year in length, and typically culminate in a certificate or diploma.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental hygienists are the individuals responsible for cleaning a patient’s teeth. Although many of their duties overlap with those of a dental assistant, there is more direct patient care and higher education requirements for this profession. Duties include:

  • Taking patient medical histories
  • Removing plaque and other debris from the surface of the teeth
  • Making models and impressions of the teeth
  • Patient charting
  • Cleaning the teeth and applying the necessary decay preventatives
  • Distributing local anesthetics (for numbing purposes)
  • Removing sutures and dressings
  • Providing follow-up care after a dental procedure

Because so much of a dental hygienist’s work is similar to that of a nurse or other high-level medical professional, there is a much more stringent watch over licensing and job opportunities.

Hygienists must have either a two-year Associate or four-year Bachelor’s degree in order to work in most states, and there may be additional hurdles in the form of graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program, a passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and additional testing at the regional or state level.

These steps are not without their benefits, however, as most dental hygienists make a considerably higher salary than dental assistants.





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