If you’re already a dental hygienist or a dentist, you may find yourself explaining to your friends, family and patients how one job is different from the other. If you’re considering a career in dentistry, you may not be certain which path to take. There are so many types of oral health care professionals (dental hygienist, dental assistant, dentist and specialist, to name a few).
One of the more difficult things for laypeople to understand in dentistry is the difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist. Some people may be satisfied by comparing the amount of schooling involved, the median salary or the projected job market. (Incidentally, demand for both is expected to grow in the coming years.) But some care more about day-to-day tasks and types of clinical involvement. That’s when the details make a difference.
It seems that dentists’ jobs have become both more scientific and more precise through history. Around the turn of the twentieth century, dentists began recognizing the need for dental hygienists to help with various tasks involved in dental treatment, including scaling and polishing teeth. Over time, the dental hygienist’s role became better defined, and separate responsibilities developed both within dental practices and in government licensing.
1. Preventative care responsibilities
Patient care is the primary focus of both dental hygienists and dentists. The difference between the two lies in the types of care they give.
For standard check-up/prophylaxis appointments, dental hygienists usually spend more time with each patient than dentists do. Hygienists conduct prophylaxis, removing calculus, plaque and stains from teeth. They also advise patients on dental hygiene and may provide other health-related counseling.
In taking care of a patient’s teeth at the prophylactic appointment, dentists take a more diagnostic approach. In many 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 advise patients on self care. They also provide information on various treatments.
2. Assessment and diagnosis responsibilities
Dentists and dental hygienists split the responsibilities associated with assessment and diagnosis, as well.
While RDHs usually can’t make diagnoses, they can provide the dentist with information that will make a diagnosis 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 his or her history. The dental hygienist typically reviews each patient’s medical and dental history and 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.
The dental hygienist’s involvement in treatment varies according to state regulations. In some states, RDHs can practice on their own, without the direct supervision of a dentist. Thirty-five states permit RDHs to administer local anesthesia. In general, though, prophylaxis is the main treatment carried out by dental hygienists. Some dental hygienists take on expanded functions and can be more involved in treating patients.
Dentists are responsible for the development of treatment plans. In fulfilling those plans, dentists do 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, people choosing between a career as a dentist and a career as a registered dental hygienist should consider how their career might play out as far as 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.
In most states, RDHs cannot work without the supervision of a dentist. They typically find jobs at dental practices or work through a dental hygienist temp agency. Many do neither, finding permanent jobs too inflexible and RDH temp agency jobs too limiting. They opt instead for Cloud Dentistry, the cloud-based job-matching platform that allows them more control over their careers.
Although many dentists own practices, there are options for those who want to practice without the burdens of business ownership. Dentists can work for the government, for dental corporations or as associates in another dentist’s practice. Alternatively, they can take on freelance-style work through Cloud Dentistry.
So...RDH or dentist?
Both are responsible for patient education and helping patients maintain their oral health. Both are likely to see each patient at each 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. Dentists, on the other hand, tend to 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.