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What dental hygiene education looks like today

If you want to become a dental hygienist, you have to be willing to work for it. As well as having the right personality traits, such as being a true people person, you also need the appropriate qualifications and first-hand experience before you’re allowed to treat patients in a dental practice. But if you’re motivated enough to dedicate yourself to the challenging journey, you’ll be compensated with a rewarding, fulfilling career that’s as future-proof as they come.

Here’s a deep dive into what dental hygiene education looks like today, so you know what to expect if you’re thinking of choosing it as a career.

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Associate’s degree

The minimum level of education for a dental hygienist is an associate’s degree which typically takes 2-3 years to obtain and involves completing an average of 84 credit hours.

Dental hygiene programs are offered by community colleges, technical colleges, dental schools and universities. In 2017, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which forms part of the American Dental Association, assigned over 300 dental hygiene programs. since then, almost another 30 have been added, making it easy for most students to find a dental hygiene program in a convenient location.

Educational content

A dental hygiene associate’s degree includes classroom, lab and clinical education. According to CODA, all recognized dental hygiene programs cover four key content areas:

  • General education: Oral and written communication, sociology and psychology.
  • Biomedical science: Anatomy, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, immunology, pathology, pathophysiology, pharmacology and nutrition.
  • Dental science: Oral embryology and history, tooth morphology, oral pathology, periodontology, radiography, dental materials and pain management.
  • Dental hygiene science: Oral health education, preventative counseling, patient management, community oral health, dental and medical emergencies, hazard and infection control, clinical dental hygiene, legal and ethical principles, and provision of services for patients with special needs and bloodborne diseases.

In addition to the classroom coursework, a dental hygienist associate’s degree also includes supervised clinical experience. In the first year of study, students experience 8-12 hours of hands-on practice each week. In the second year, this increases to 12-16 hours. 

Admission requirements

Admission requirements for a dental hygiene associate’s degree depends on the school. However, here are some of the requirements you’ll be expected to meet before you qualify to study for an associate’s degree in dental hygiene.

Although they’re not obligatory for all dental hygiene programs, a student is much more likely to be accepted if they have them. Especially when you consider that according to an ADA Survey of Allied Dental Education, 70% of dental hygiene programs use college science GPA as part of the criteria when considering admissions. 

  • Highschool diploma or GED
  • Passing grades in highschool-level mathematics, chemistry, biology and English
  • Minimum highschool GPA of 2.0 (sometimes as high as 2.5)
  • Up to 40 credit hours of prerequisite college coursework in English, chemistry, speech, psychology and sociology
  • CPR certification

Bachelor’s degree

While bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dental hygiene are also available, they’re much less common and usually only taken by people wanting to research, teach, or carry out clinical practice in public or school health programs. Dental hygiene bachelor’s and master’s degrees generally aren’t obtained by people wanting to become dental hygienists.

For students who do want to take dental hygiene a step further, entry-level bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete and cover an average of 120 credit hours. Some bachelor’s degrees also award a post-degree certificate to people who’ve previously earned an associate’s degree and complete an accredited dental hygiene educational program.

Licenses, certifications and registrations

After obtaining a dental hygiene degree, whether it’s an associate’s or bachelor's, a dental hygienist needs to become licensed before they can practice. The requirements to become licensed vary by state, but most require:

  • A degree from an accredited dental hygiene program — such as the Commission on Dental Education
  • Passing grade on state-issued clinical exam — testing knowledge of basic restorative techniques, anesthesia and hygiene procedures
  • Passing grade on state-issued drug and law exam — testing knowledge of the rules and regulations specific to your state
  • Passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination — This test is made up of 350 multiple-choice questions on discipline-based and case-based components. Scores are on a 49-99 scale, with 75 being the minimum needed to pass.

When a dental hygienist becomes licensed, they’re able to use RDH after their name, signifying recognition by the state that they are a true Registered Dental Hygienist.

License renewal

To prove they’re continuing with ongoing education, dental hygienists are required to renew their license every 1-3 years. To do so, you’ve got to pay the required fees and prove you’ve completed the required number of ongoing education hours as listed by your state. The number of ongoing education hours is typically 10-20 for each 1 year cycle, 30-50 for each 2 year cycle and 60 for each 3 year cycle. 

The American Dental Association provides many ways of continuing education. They regularly update a database of live and online courses covering a variety of topics. 

The future of dental hygiene education

While dental hygiene is an amazing job for the future, the outlook of who will be teaching the dental hygienists of tomorrow is somewhat uncertain. Following a surge of dental professionals entering the industry in the 1960s and 1970s, a significant absence of dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants is expected in the near future as they reach retirement. And with this also looms the absence of dental professional teachers.

Retirement isn’t the only reason faculty shortages are a problem in dental hygiene. According to RHH, here are some other likely explanations for the lack of dental hygiene educators:

The future of training new dental hygienists is largely dependent on the availability of a suitable number of qualified educators in the field who have the content knowledge, practice expertise and commitment to do the job. This is a very daunting prospect, taking into consideration the anticipated deficiencies.

In 2020, there is expected to be approximately 900 faculty vacancies in dental schools throughout the country. By contrast, in 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipated employment for hygienists would grow by 33.3% by 2022. This suggests that although there is a great demand for dental hygienists, eager students might find it difficult to gain the qualifications to enter the field. 

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What this means for aspiring dental hygienists

Despite the facts and figures stated above, students dreaming of becoming dental hygienists shouldn’t feel disillusioned. The future of dentistry is still bright.

According to CODA, there are at least 329 dental hygiene programs throughout the country right now. While it’s possible this number could reduce in the coming years due to under-staffing, students should be able to find at least one school, college or university within their state which offers a dental hygiene program.

Since places will be limited due to a restricted number of educators, it’s likely you’ll be up against some strong competition to get a spot on a program. The best way to stand out from the crowd is to excel in highschool, achieving the highest GPA you’re capable of along with the best grades you can in math and science.

Think about your future

The minimal difficulties you might discover while trying to get accepted by a school offering a dental hygienist program is far outweighed by the many positives of working as a dental hygienist. When you qualify as an RDH, a huge number of professional opportunities will open up before you. You can go down the traditional route and accept a job at a single practice working for a dentist or take control of your career and become a dental hygienist independent contractor.

With Cloud Dentistry, you have the freedom to determine your working schedule, working environment, person you work for and hourly rate. You can combine working full- or part-time at dental practice in an employee position with temping as an independent contractor. If you find you’ve got more or less time on your hands than usual one week, you can adjust your availability accordingly to suit your life at that time. 

Creating your Cloud Dentistry profile and browsing for jobs is 100% free for independent contractors and you get to chat directly with potential employers so you can find out if a job is right for you before accepting the position. Unlike traditional dental temp job boards and staffing agencies, Cloud Dentistry puts you in control and lets you take charge of your career.