Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists

dental hygienist jobs

Two key roles in the dental field are dental assistants and dental hygienists. Both have distinct responsibilities, educational requirements, and career paths. In this blog, we’ll explore the differences and similarities between dental assistants and dental hygienists to understand these vital roles better. 

Dental Assistant Responsibilities 

Dental assistants are an essential part of any dental practice. They work closely with dentists and hygienists to ensure that all dental procedures run smoothly. Here are some key responsibilities of a dental assistant: 

  1. Supporting the Dentist: Dental assistants play an invaluable role in aiding dentists and dental hygienists during procedures by holding suction devices and passing instruments. 
  1. Preparing Treatment Rooms: Dental assistants help the practice by sterilizing instruments and setting up equipment. They ensure that dentists and dental hygienists have everything they need to perform their jobs correctly. 
  1. Collecting Impressions: Dental assistants collect vital diagnostic and treatment planning data—for example, by taking impressions—while adhering to safety protocols. 
  1. Providing Chairside Assistance: Dental assistants can offer comfort and reassurance during dental procedures, from aftercare instructions to addressing any questions or concerns.
  1. Maintaining Patient Records: Maintaining up-to-date patient files to allow for accurate billing and treatment is a crucial part of being a dental assistant.
  1. Performing Administrative Duties: Dental assistants often perform administrative duties, including scheduling appointments, maintaining patient files, and filing insurance claims.

Dental Hygienist Responsibilities

Dental hygienists focus primarily on patient education and preventative dental care services. The main responsibilities of a dental hygienist include: 

  1. Cleanings: One of the key duties of dental hygienists includes dental cleanings. This helps patients avoid gum disease and other oral health conditions by eliminating plaque, tartar, and stains on their teeth. 
  1. Oral Health Assessments: Dental hygienists perform oral health assessments and inform dentists when they see any signs of cavities, gum disease, or other issues. 
  1. X-Rays: To assist in diagnosis and treatment plans, dental hygienists take and develop dental X-rays. 
  1. Patient Education: Dental hygienists play a vital role in patient education, providing information about proper dental hygiene practices, nutrition, and the importance of maintaining optimal oral health for your patients. (link to dental myths blog?)
  1. Preventative Therapies: Using preventive methods such as fluoride varnishes or dental sealants to protect against tooth decay is another part of a dental hygienist’s job. 
  1. Anesthesia: Dental hygienists can get an anesthesia license to provide anesthetic in dental procedures, making patient visits more comfortable. 
  1. Maintaining Dental Records: Dental hygienists are responsible for maintaining meticulous records of dental cleanings, oral health assessments, and any treatments recommended to patients. 

Education Requirements 

Becoming a dental assistant and or a dental hygienist requires different educational pathways and training. 

Dental Assistants

Requirements for dental assistants vary between states regarding education and certifications, and not all positions require formal training. However, many community colleges, vocational schools, and dental schools offer programs in dental assisting, which often take roughly one year to complete.

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists must complete specific educational and training requirements to become registered hygienists. At a minimum, this usually includes two years in an accredited dental hygiene program. Before working as dental hygienists, they must also pass national and state licensing exams. 

Scope of Practice

State regulations typically determine the roles and responsibilities of dental assistants and dental hygienists in specific contexts. These regulations can vary widely by state and the dental office itself. However, there are a few common distinctions between dental assistants and dental hygienists in the scope of their practice:

Dental Assistants 

Working under the direct supervision of licensed dentists and hygienists, their primary function is to assist during procedures, take X-rays, provide chairside assistance, and perform other related duties. 

Dental Hygienists

As their role has evolved over the years, many dental hygienists now operate more independently when performing cleanings and dental assessments without direct oversight from dentists. 

Career Outlook

Due to the dental staffing shortage, dental assistants and hygienists face a unique career outlook. 

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants can work across several settings, including orthodontics, general dentistry, and oral surgery practices. If your career goals include becoming a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) or getting a specialty certification, you can earn above the annual median wage of $42,650.

Dental Hygienists 

Dental hygienists work in various settings, but their main goal is often patient education and preventative care. You can look into getting certifications to specialize in certain areas of dental care, including periodontics and orthodontics. The annual median wage for dental hygienists is $76,100. There are countless opportunities for those looking for dental hygienist jobs. 

To summarize, dental assistants and dental hygienists play vital roles in their dental practices, each handling unique responsibilities. Typically, dental assistants support dental procedures while managing administrative duties, while dental hygienists specialize in patient education, assessment, and preventative care services. Each path has distinct educational requirements, roles, responsibilities, and career outlooks. Whether to work as a dental hygienist or assistant depends on your interests and career goals.