What Do Dental Hygienists do?

Working as a dental hygienists can be a rewarding career. Dental hygienists work under the supervision of a dentist and play an important part of the oral health team. Each state has its own regulations regarding what duties a dental hygienists can perform. Generally, the main responsibilities of dental hygienists are providing patient assessments, preventative oral care, and patient education.

Patient Assessments

Completing patient assessments is one way that dental hygienists support dentists. A typical patient assessment may begin with documenting the patient’s medical history. Next, the hygienist examines the teeth, head, and neck. During the examination, the dental hygienist is looking for dental issues such as periodontal disease, bleeding gums, oral cancer, recessed gums, gingivitis, and oral lesions. Dental hygienists also take and develop dental x-rays for the dentist to review. Hygienists are responsible for protecting themselves and the patient from the x-rays’ radiation. The hygienist reports the results of the assessment to the dentist. The dental hygienist may also be responsible for making a record of the patient’s condition and treatment plan.

Preventative Oral Care

In addition to examining the patient’s oral health, dental hygienists provide preventative oral care by performing a professional dental cleaning. The goal of the cleaning is to remove stains, soft deposits called plaque, and hard deposits also known as calculus or tartar. Removing hard deposits are a critical part of a professional cleaning because toothbrushes cannot remove them.

There are a variety of tools that a hygienist may use for cleaning. A hand scaler, a metal device with a hook at the end, removes plaque and tartar. Alternatively, some hygienists clean with an ultrasonic scaler, which cleans with vibrations. After the cleaning, the hygienist may polish the teeth and apply fluoride or a sealant to prevent future damage to the teeth. The hygienist polishes with a tool that rotates like an automatic toothbrush. Polishing is an important part of the process because it is more difficult for plaque and calculus to accumulate on polished teeth.

Patient Education

Dental hygienists teach patients about proper oral care. They may instruct patients on proper brushing and flossing techniques. Also they educate patients about the importance of good nutrition to maintain oral health.

Additional Duties

Depending on the requirements of the dentist and the regulations of the state, a dental hygienist may have duties in addition to their primary responsibilities. They are often responsible for keeping dental equipment clean and well-maintained. They may administer local anesthesia with a syringe.

Background

The vast majority of dental hygienists work in dentist offices. About half of all dental hygienist jobs are part-time, which has lead to some hygienists to work for more than one dentist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for a dental hygienist was $35.61 in 2017.

A dental hygienist must have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, which usually takes three years to obtain. Every state requires a dental hygienist to be licensed.