Dental hygiene is a flexible and well-compensated career path that is attractive to individuals who wish to work in the oral healthcare field. Hygienists work closely alongside dentists during complicated operations and sometimes perform routine dental procedures completely unsupervised.
Dental hygienists are rewarded for their work with comparatively large salaries. Unlike dental assistants, who work primarily in administrative sector, hygienists must complete a rigorous educational program and pass a licensing exam in order to seek employment. At the top of their field, dental hygienist can earn up to $95,000 per year.
The specific salary earned by a hygienist depends on a number of factors. Although all hygienists are required to have at least a 2-year associates degree or vocational certificate in the field along with a State license, those who hold a 4-year bachelor’s degree will generally earn more than those who have not completed a longer-term program.
Other determining factors are work experience, employer size, and geographic location. Generally, dental hygienists who work in urban areas will earn a larger salary than those in more rural practices. However it is also true that dental hygienists who are employed in areas with a high number of dental hygiene programs will experience more competitiveness in the job market.
According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a dental hygienist is $66,570. The highest 10% earns over $91,470 per year while the bottom 10% earns less than $44,180 per year. The middle 50% earns between $55,220 and $78,990. In addition, many dental hygienists also receive benefits such as sick leave and paid vacation, depending on their employer.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Training and Education Requirements
Dental hygienists are required to hold a minimum of a 2-year associates degree or vocational certificate from an accredited school in order to be eligible for a State license. Without a license, it is impossible to work as a dental hygienist. It is imperative that all potential dental hygienists are aware of the training and educational requirements for licensing prior to enrolling in any program.
The most common degree held by dental hygienists is an associates degree, although it is also possible to earn a bachelors or masters degree in the field. Good dental hygiene programs will cover relevant subjects in-depth and prepare students with the skills necessary to pass both the national written exam and clinical exam administered by the State.
Classwork in dental hygiene programs is typically completed in both clinical and classroom settings. General coursework covers the basics of human anatomy and physiology, as well as chemistry, nutrition, microbiology, and histology. Dental hygiene students also enroll in classes that teach them the basics of oral healthcare and basic dental practice such as periodontology (the study of gums), dental materials, and the principles of hygiene. Students will learn how to safely operate dental tools such as hand and rotary instruments in a clinical setting.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation is the body which offers accreditation to dental hygiene programs. Accreditation essentially means that the program is in compliance with the commission’s standards for oral healthcare education. Graduation from an accredited program is a requirement for licensing, therefore it’s always preferable to check a program’s status prior to enrollment.
Job Descriptions and Outlook
State laws dictate exactly what tasks the dental hygienist can perform. In general, hygienists are responsible for performing basic teeth cleaning procedures such as the removal of plaque, stains and deposits from the teeth, as well as examining the gum tissue for abnormalities. They might also apply fluoride and sealant solutions to the teeth after cleaning. Other principle duties include educating patients about oral health by demonstrating the proper brushing and flossing techniques. Some States authorize dental hygienists to administer anesthetics, create fillings, remove sutures and perform diagnostic tests that are then interpreted by the dentist.
The employment outlook for dental hygienists is very positive. Demand for hygienists is expected to increase in most areas, although employment opportunities will vary based on area. It is important to note that half of all dental hygienists work part time in two or more dental offices, with the average amount of time spent working being less than 35 hours a week. However as general workload increases for dentists due to the aging of the population, the need for hygienists will also increase.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Dental hygienists do not need certification as they are required to become licensed by the State in order to practice. Although State licensing procedures vary, nearly all States require that dental hygienists pass a 2-part exam. The first exam is entirely written and is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA). The second part of the exam is clinical and is administered by the State. Some States also require an exam on the legal aspects of dental hygiene.
The main professional association for dental hygienists is the American Dental Hygiene Association (ADHA). The ADHA was founded in order to promote communication and knowledge among hygiene professionals. The scientific Journal of Dental Hygiene is published by the ADHA in order to disseminate new research among dental hygienists.
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