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What is the difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants?

There are many differences between dental hygienists and dental assistants. There are similarities, too. If you’re an oral healthcare professional, you may be asked to explain the differences to patients, friends or relatives. If you’re thinking about starting a career in dentistry, you’ll definitely need to know as much as possible about the two jobs before making a decision. 

Education and training

From the beginning of the dental professional’s career, education is the first major difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants. Both require at least a high school diploma. Some training programs may require certain test scores or other prerequisites. In most cases, official licensing is required to begin work.

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Becoming a licensed oral healthcare professional

High-school graduates who want to become dental assistants can enter training programs. While some states don’t require special training and licensing, many do. Even in states that don’t have specific licensing requirements, it’s difficult for an untrained person to get a job as a dental assistant. Taking part in a program that teaches the ins and outs of dental assisting is important preparation for the job.

Read: What are the differences between dental hygienists and dentists? >>

Dental hygienists require more education and training than dental assistants. To become a registered dental hygienist (RDH), a high-school graduate must enter an associate or bachelor degree program in dental assisting. Such programs typically include coursework in anatomy and physiology in addition to specific training in prophylactic treatment and other clinical functions. 

Regardless of whether the topic is dental assisting or dental hygiene, a good program prepares applicants for state licensing and, if necessary, national board exams. (Being registered with a dental association can also help with this.) Licensing requirements vary from state to state. When it comes to licensing, dental assistants and dental hygienists may have more similarities in one state than they would in another.

Continuing education and expanded functions

Both registered dental hygienists and licensed dental assistants have certain things they can and cannot do in the clinical setting (more on that in a moment). As with licensing requirements, these functions are determined by the state.

Expanded functions are an option for both hygienists and assistants. Taking on training in expanded functions can make a dental professional more valuable to dental practices. It can also keep a career in dental hygiene or dental assisting interesting. 

Most states that require a license also require continuing education to retain that license. Both dental assistants and RDHs can expect to continue with their training throughout their careers. 

Clinical functions 

What the dental assistant or RDH actually does in the clinical setting may be the most important factor in determining which career to pursue. Knowledge in this area also helps current dental professionals explain the differences to others.

Because the individual states determine what RDHs and assistants can legally do, clinical functions will naturally be different in one state than they are in another. Duties may also vary among practices, with practice owners and managers deciding how best to handle daily tasks.

Preparing for patients

One of the key functions of a dental assistant is preparation. Dental assistants are often responsible for preparing materials for the dentist to use in exams and treatment. They may also be responsible for taking down materials, sanitizing instruments and performing other infection-control procedures.

Patient interactions 

When a patient first enters the clinical setting, he or she may be greeted by either a dental assistant or a dental hygienist. The assistant or hygienist may help the patient get comfortable, answer questions, take a health history and check the patient’s blood pressure. In many cases, only RDHs with specific licensing can take radiographs and make impressions. However, some dental assistants are licensed to do these tasks.

Registered dental assistants perform prophylactic procedures, often with the help of a dental assistant. The RDH is responsible for polishing teeth, removing calculus buildup and checking the teeth and gums for problems. Neither RDHs nor dental assistants make official diagnoses; that’s a job for the dentist. However, the RDH may advise the dentist of any problems he or she finds with the patient’s oral health.

Both RDHs and dental assistants help to maintain records. Either the RDH or dental assistant will update the patient’s file with new information. While both may schedule patient appointments and make calls, these tasks often fall to dental assistants if they’re not taken care of by front-desk staff. 

At the end of the patient’s appointment, the dental hygienist may discuss home care with the patient. Either the dental assistant or the RDH may supply the patient with samples of toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss, and either may escort the patient back to the front desk to take care of check-out procedures.

Career options for dental hygienists and assistants

Career paths are an important consideration when looking at the difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants. Assistants and RDHs often choose to stay in the same career for decades. Some decide to change paths and go to school to pursue a different career in dentistry.

Where RDHs and dental assistants work

Dental assistants and dental hygienists are most often needed in private dental practices, corporate practices or public clinics. In some places, a dental hygienist may operate a practice independently, without direct supervision from a dentist. Both hygienists and assistants may use their expertise to write for dental blogs, serve as consultants, or teach in dental-hygiene or dental-assisting programs.

How RDHs and dental assistants get jobs

Job searching is a major similarity between the two careers. The majority of jobs in dentistry are in clinical practices. Dental professionals may be hired directly for permanent positions and may work full or part time. They may also go through a job-matching service.

Dental staffing agencies 

Many dental professionals choose to use a dental hygienist temp agency to find work. The RDH temp agency is one way to find temp, part-time or temp-to-hire jobs. However, both dental hygienists and dental assistants should consider other options. Placement agencies typically charge dental practices high fees. The extra money they take means there’s less in a practice’s budget to spend on RDHs and dental assistants. 

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Cloud-based job matching

RDHs and dental assistants can earn more by working for themselves. When they use Cloud Dentistry, the cloud-based job-matching platform, they can communicate directly with dental practices who need them. This allows dental professionals to decide when and where they want to work. Hygienists and RDHs can get more and better work by managing their own brands online. They can earn more with Cloud Dentistry, too, because the platform is less expensive for practices to use than a traditional temp agency.

So...Dental hygienist or dental assistant?

For those drawn to a career in dentistry, dental hygienist and dental assistant are two great options. Before choosing, a career-seeker should look at training requirements, clinical duties and career prospects. When explaining the differences to curious patients, friends or family members, dental professionals can reference these categories.

Dental professionals of all types make a difference in the lives of others. Whether you’re already a dental professional or are considering a career in dentistry, you’ve chosen an outstanding field.