If the recent worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has got you considering a career change, dentistry is a fantastic choice. With a greater-than-average anticipated growth in demand for a line of work that’s always going to be needed by the general public, anyone studying to become a dental professional today is unlikely to struggle for work after they graduate.
Unless you work in dentistry, the difference between the various types of dental professionals can be a little blurry. From dental specialists, orthodontists and dentists to dental nurses, dental hygienists and dental assistants, oral health care professions can be a lot to get your head around.
One of the more difficult things for people outside dentistry to understand is the difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist. Although both professions are within the same industry and both people practice in the same environment, there are many differences between the two when it comes to schooling, salary, responsibilities and involvement.
These are all aspects which will hugely affect your day-to-day life when studying to become and practicing as a dental professional. Because of this, it’s important you know the difference as early on as possible to avoid making mistakes further down the line.
The first dental hygienist
Dentists’ jobs have become more scientific and more precise over the years. In 1907, Alfred Fones, a dentist in Connecticut, discovered the connection between oral care and cavity-causing bacteria.
To help improve his patients’ oral health, he employed his cousin, Irene Newman, and trained her to carry out dental prophylaxis treatments. As a result, Irene Newman became the very first dental hygienist to perform dental hygiene duties in a clinical setting. Over time, the dental hygienist’s role became better defined and separate responsibilities developed within dental practices and in government licensing.
1. Preventative care responsibilities
Patient care is the main focus of both dental hygienists and dentists. The difference between the two lies in the specific types of care they give.
Dental hygienists are more involved in standard check-up/prophylaxis appointments than dentists. During this type of appointment, hygienists remove calculus, plaque and stains from teeth. They also advise patients about how to maintain their dental hygiene at home and may provide other health-related counseling.
When it comes to taking care of a patient’s teeth at the prophylactic appointment, dentists take a more diagnostic approach. While many states allow dental hygienists to practice independently, in some states dentists must supervise the work of dental hygienists by ordering prophylactic treatments for each patient.
Usually, after the prophylaxis has been completed, the dentist examines the patient for problems. Like hygienists, dentists also advise patients on self care and carry on to provide information and guidance on various treatments.
2. Assessment and diagnosis responsibilities
Dentists and dental hygienists split the responsibilities associated with assessment and diagnosis.
While RDHs usually can’t make diagnoses, they can provide the dentist with information that will make a diagnosis quicker and easier. Hygienists are often responsible for taking radiographs, checking a patient’s vital signs (such as blood pressure and heart rate) and talking to the patient about their history.
The dental hygienist typically reviews each patient’s medical and dental history then records any changes in health. The hygienist may also conduct physical exams and assessments, such as manual thyroid checks.
Dentists take on the actual diagnosis of oral health problems. Armed with information from the dental hygienist and his or her own observations, a dentist can identify caries, bite alignment problems and other issues. Dentists are responsible for interpreting x-rays and other diagnostics.
3. Treatment responsibilities
Treatment is another area in which dental hygienists and dentists work together, fulfilling different responsibilities in pursuit of the overall goal: maximizing a patient’s oral health.
How involved a dental hygienist is in treating a patient varies according to state regulations. As of 2019, 42 states provide RDHs with direct access to initiate treatment based on their assessment of a patients’ needs without authorization of a dentist. However, prophylaxis is still the main treatment carried out by dental hygienists.
Dentists are responsible for the development of treatment plans. They’re also in charge of carrying out the more invasive procedures of dentistry such as fillings, root canals, extractions, implants and other restorative measures. They may also refer patients to specialists such as orthodontists and endodontists.
4. How dentist and RDH jobs work
Apart from the basic job responsibilities, anyone deciding on a career as a dentist or dental hygienist should consider how their career might play out in terms of getting licensed and finding work.
Both dentists and hygienists are licensed oral health care professionals and licensing is done by state. Both require specialized training through licensing programs, but dentists require more education than hygienists do. Both can be registered with a dental association to receive continuing education and other types of professional support.
Many dentists and RDHs find work the same way. Some set up their own practice and work for themselves, while others seek an employed role at an established dental office. If neither of those options sound appealing to you, know you can work independently either as a dentist or dental hygienist and provide your services to clients on a freelance basis within their dental practice.
Instead of searching for temp jobs on sites such as Craigslist or through dental temp agencies, find your dream dental job through Cloud Dentistry, the cloud-based job-matching platform that gives you total control over your career. When you choose this option, you have the freedom to decide when you work, where you work and how much you get paid.
So...RDH or dentist?
Both are responsible for patient education and helping patients maintain their oral health and both are likely to see each patient at their every visit. The major differences, apart from education and salary, lie in their responsibilities within the dental practice.
Dental hygienists are in the business of preventative care. They conduct prophylactic treatments and physical assessments. While dentists deal with both prevention and treatment. They have two very different jobs, but the dental hygienist and the dentist are both essential members of each patient’s oral hygiene team.