If you’ve been considering a dental career, chances are you’ve heard of dental hygienists and dental assistants. Sometimes, people even conflate the two different jobs, but they each have their own unique sets of benefits, duties, roles, and responsibilities. So what are they? We’ll talk about some differences and similarities between the two roles, as well as what it takes to become a dental assistant or a dental hygienist.
What Are Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists?
First, what are dental assistants (or DAs) and dental hygienists? Dental assistants almost always work with a dentist and so do dental hygienists, but each in a unique capacity.
While dental assistants generally work directly with a dentist, offering assistance with surgery and sometimes administrative tasks and fluoride treatments, dental hygienists perform their own work directly with patients as well, offering preventative care like teeth cleanings and polishing. They also work with patients to plan out preventative dental care patients can do at home. We’ll go over the roles in more depth for each job.
What a Dental Assistant Does
Dental assistants have their own unique set of responsibilities. Like dental hygienists, they work alongside a dentist, but they work in a very support-oriented role. DAs are essential to a dentist’s practice, and generally work full time.
Assists Dentist With Surgery
One vital role dental assistants fill is assisting dentists during surgeries. DAs carry out many essential preparations for surgery—like sterilizing tools—as well as active tasks during surgery, such as applying suction to drain fluids from a patient’s mouth.
Work With Patients
Dental assistants work very closely with patients. They ensure that they’re comfortable in the chair, and discuss care with patients, getting them ready for surgery, and even discuss oral home-care with patients.
Dental assistants also carry out essential administrative functions. DAs help patients make appointments, keep track of patient visits, and work with patients when it comes to payments.
Work Full Time with a Dentist
Since dental assistants carry out so many vital day-to-day roles, they are often employed full time at a single dentist’s practice.
What a Dental Hygienist Does
Dental hygienists have a lot of responsibilities and work very closely with patients. Like DAs, dental hygienists generally work at a dentist’s practice.
Offer Preventative Care and Work Closely with Patients
Dental Hygienists work closely with patients and offer preventative care. This may mean cleaning teeth and removing plaque, as well as giving fluoride treatments and removing stains using air abrasion techniques.
Dental hygienists also discuss care strategies with patients directly, and work with them to develop preventative care habits. For instance, a dental hygienist might show a patient the proper way to brush and floss, and recommend brushes, toothpastes, and mouthwashes to use at home.
Like DAs, dental hygienists often also take X-rays of teeth, and often work closely under a dentist’s supervision.
Work Part Time, Sometimes With Multiple Dentists
Dental Hygienists sometimes work with more than one Dentist’s practice. The reason for this is that many practices do not need a hygienist onsight every single day. Instead, hygienists may come in a few days a week, when, for instance, a teeth cleaning is scheduled.
Many hygienists develop a weekly schedule of working part time at two or more practices to work a full work week efficiently.
While there are some definite similarities between the two roles, dental hygienists and DAs serve unique functions in dental care, and each job has its own set of benefits and responsibilities.
Becoming a dental hygienist generally has steeper educational requirements. Every state requires that a dental hygienist has completed an associates degree in dental hygiene, which usually takes about three years to complete.
Aspiring dental assistants, however, can finish a dental assistant program in higher education in less than two years. While licensing varies from state-to-state, it is generally much easier to get started as a dental assistant.
Some people also become a dental assistant first, before enrolling in a dental hygiene program and becoming a dental hygienist.
Dental assistants are absolutely essential to the day-to-day operation of a dental practice, so they generally are offered full time employment with a static schedule that changes little if any, week to week.
By contrast, dental hygienists often work with more than one dental practice for a full work week, working part time at each practice.
Both roles offer competitive pay. While becoming a dental hygienist can take much longer, it does tend to pay a little more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for DAs in 2020 was $41,180 annually, working in dentist’s offices, and the median pay for dental hygienists working in dentist’s offices was $77,330.
Both jobs are projected to grow significantly in coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both jobs are projected to grow 11% between 2020 and 2030.
Dental assistants and dental hygienists each carry out their own unique and important set of tasks in a dental healthcare setting. The two roles share many similarities, but also have some key differences, including benefits, hours, and responsibilities. Both dental assistance and dental hygiene are great ways to enter the world of dental healthcare.
Want to learn more about what it takes to be a dental assistant? Check out our Ultimate Guide: How to Become a Dental Assistant
If you’ve been thinking about taking the first step to becoming a dental assistant, Chattanooga College offers a great program that can get you on your way to the dental career of your dreams. Click here to talk to an advisor today!