Dental Hygiene Online an Campus Degrees

What Do Dental Hygienists Do?

Dental hygienists play a pivotal role in providing preventative oral care. They work side-by-side with dentists and other dental professionals to carry out tasks that range from cleaning teeth to providing assistance during oral surgery so that the patient can enjoy improved oral health care.

More specifically, dental hygienists are primarily responsible for tasks related to examination and maintenance of teeth. Dental hygienists might take X-rays of a patient’s teeth for the dentist to examine, though in some cases, the dental hygienist might have the proper training to examine X-rays to identify potential problems on their own. Commonly, dental hygienists also perform a visual examination of a patient’s teeth, gums, tongue, and other structures to look for any signs of damage (i.e., cracked enamel) or disease (i.e., gum disease).

Dental hygienists are also responsible for cleaning a patient’s teeth. This includes cleaning tartar and plaque buildup from teeth and the gums, polishing teeth, flossing, and so forth. Typically, dental hygienists also provide oral health tips to patients as well, such as directing them in the proper way to brush and care for one’s teeth.

In some cases, dental hygienists might also maintain the exam area, clean instruments, administer anesthesia to patients, and complete other tasks as needed or directed by the attending dentist.

What is a Dental Hygienist Degree?

A dental hygienist degree is designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to provide quality health care to dental patients. Most commonly, dental hygienists complete an associate’s degree program as their training, though many also elect to complete bachelor’s degrees or even master’s degrees.

Regardless of the type of degree a student pursues, these programs provide classroom learning experiences as well as practical clinical training so that students are well prepared to enter the workforce. A breakdown of each level of education can be found below.

Associate’s Dental Hygienist Degree

These two-year programs are by far the most common method of training for dental hygienists. Associate’s degrees are usually 60 credits, which a student can complete in two years if they attend school full-time. Because associate’s degrees are entry-level learning, admissions requirements tend to be much more lax than what one finds for bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Typical admissions requirements include having a high school diploma or GED and a satisfactory score on a college admissions test like the SAT or ACT.

Common coursework for associate’s degree programs usually includes:

  • Basic human anatomy, including learning about the structure of basic human systems, like the circulatory system and the cardiovascular system.
  • Basic physiology, or the study of the function of cells and organs within various anatomical systems, such as examining how the lungs work.
  • Pharmacology, or the study of how drugs work and their effects on the human body, and more specifically, common drugs that are used in a dental setting.
  • Clinical practice, or learning how to operate in a dental setting, such as how to interact with patients, how to setup a dental examination area, and how to assist dentists during common procedures.

Bachelor’s Dental Hygienist Degree

Bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene usually take around four years to complete (or two years if a student already has an associate’s degree) and require around 120 credit hours of coursework. Where an associate’s degree offers introductory coursework, bachelor’s degrees take student learning one step further and incorporate more coursework and clinical experiences in dental hygiene.

Usually, bachelor’s degree programs usually require applicants to fulfill more stringent admissions requirements, including having a higher GPA than what’s required for an associate’s degree, satisfactory scores on the SAT or ACT, and letters of recommendation from previous teachers, though these requirements vary from one program to the next.

Students at the bachelor’s degree level typically learn:

  • Dental radiography, including how to operate dental x-ray machines, how to place x-ray detectors in patients’ mouths, and how to read and examine x-rays.
  • Dental anatomy, including the structures of the mouth, gums, and teeth.
  • Anesthesia, including the types of anesthesia used in dental procedures, how to administer anesthesia, and how to resolve problems that might occur when a patient is anesthetized.
  • Standards of ethical practice, or how to perform the duties of a dental hygienist in a professional, responsible, and ethical manner such that patients receive the care they need.

Master’s Dental Hygienist Degree

Yet another step forward in a dental hygienist’s education is obtaining a master’s degree. These degrees usually take one to two years to finish, and generally require about 30 hours of coursework and clinical practice to be successfully completed.

Master’s degree programs have the highest admissions requirements of the degree programs listed here. These might include having a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited institution, a satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Exam, recommendation letters from undergraduate professors, and a statement of purpose or goals statement.

In a dental hygiene master’s degree program, students are expected to learn:

  • Oral health and disease prevention, in which students explore the etiology and treatment of oral problems and diseases, as well as the steps that can be taken to prevent oral diseases from occurring.
  • Advanced dental theory, in which students explore differing viewpoints that influence how oral health care is provided, difficulties with access to oral health care, and solutions to those problems.
  • Advanced clinical practice, including how to perform various dental procedures on various populations, such as children or the elderly.
  • Dental health policy, or the study of current best practices in oral health care, insurance mandates, ethical procedures, and other factors that impact how, when, and where dental health care is provided.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene?

As with any career, the more education and experience you have, the more career opportunities that will present themselves. For example, dental hygienists with a master’s degree are usually more likely to be hired than dental hygienists with a bachelor’s degree, simply because of the advanced education and practice that are part of a master’s degree program.

Additionally, a master’s degree in dental hygiene opens up career paths in other areas of work outside of the dentist’s office. For example, some dental hygienists with a master’s degree opt to enter the education sector, such as teaching in dental hygiene schools to train students for careers in this line of work. Other dental hygienists with this level of education work in consultative or advocacy capacities where they strive to bring attention to oral health issues and improve access to quality dental services.

Not only does having a master’s degree open up more career paths, but it also helps to advance in the career you already have. That is, a master’s degree can help you advance up the ranks in a dental office from an entry-level or beginner hygienist to a senior member of the staff. This could result in having more responsibilities and a higher income as well. For example, with the advanced training that master’s degree programs offer, dental hygienists might become qualified to perform procedures that they were not qualified to do with a bachelor’s degree.

In other words, advancing one’s education may result in a higher salary, more responsibilities, improved and expanded skills, and greater employment opportunities in more settings.

What Does It Take to Get a Dental Hygienist Degree?

To be an effective dental hygienist, you need sound basis of education, skills, and attributes. These include:

Understanding of dental procedures – To graduate with a degree in dental hygiene, students must understand various dental procedures and be able to carry them out either on their own (i.e., taking dental x-rays) or by assisting a dentist (i.e., performing a root canal).

Understanding of dental terms – Dental hygienists must be well versed in the terms that are commonly used in dental offices. Additionally, students must develop the ability to explain complex dental conditions such that patients understand them.

Understanding of ethical practice – Students must demonstrate an understanding of medical and dental ethics, including, but not limited to ensuring patient privacy and confidentiality of patient records.

Manual dexterity – Since dental hygienists work with their hands, it’s necessary to have excellent control of your hands and fingers, be able to work in very small spaces, and control instruments with precision. Having excellent hand-eye coordination is also a plus.

Compassion – Many people are afraid of the dentist, or at least uncomfortable being in the dentist’s chair. As such, dental hygienists must have the ability to recognize when someone is uncomfortable and understand what they need to do to help their patient be less stressed during the procedure.

Critical thinking skills – Dental hygienists typically see patients before a dentist does, so it’s important for students to develop strong critical thinking skills during their studies. This includes being able to solve problems quickly, assess situations, and make critical evaluations based on the available information.

Communication skills – Not only do dental hygienists need to be able to communicate effectively with dentists and other dental professionals, but they must also possess the ability to engage in conversations with a wide variety of patients. This doesn’t just involve talking, though. Students should have excellent active listening skills as well.

Persistence – Dental hygiene degree programs require a lot of work in the classroom, laboratory settings, and in clinical practice. Students must have a good work ethic and be persistent in their studies if they are to be successful.

Where Does a Dental Hygienist Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95 percent of dental hygienists work in dental offices. A much smaller percentage work in doctor’s offices (approximately 1 percent) and government agencies (approximately 1 percent). Another area of employment for dental hygienists is in the education sector, where they utilize their experience in the field to train dental hygiene students.

How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make With an Associate’s Degree?

With an associate’s degree, dental hygienists can expect to earn an excellent income. In fact, as of April 2018, according to, the median yearly wages for a dental hygienist with an associate’s degree is $66,708-$72,254. The average pay range for dental hygienists is much wider, however. For example, workers with no experience or perhaps a lower level of education earn less than $50,000 per year, on average.

However, those wages are still quite good. In fact, there are very few occupations that offer this level of compensation with an associate’s degree-level of education.

How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make With a Bachelor’s Degree?

Surprisingly, having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t seem to translate into much higher average wages for dental hygienists. As of April 2018, the median pay range for bachelor’s degree workers is $67,159-$72,695, or just a few hundred dollars more per year, on average, than an associate’s degree worker.

That being said, the ceiling for bachelor’s educated dental hygienists is higher than those with an associate’s degree. Not only are there more job opportunities available, but better-paying job opportunities are also more abundant.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics­, as of May 2016, the highest earning 10 percent of workers in this field command average salaries of more than $100,000. So, like many occupations, having more education is usually of benefit to you.

What is the Job Outlook for Dental Hygienists?

The career outlook for dental hygienists is quite strong. Actually, this is one of the fastest-growing jobs right now, and is expected to continue with rapid growth through the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for dental hygienists will grow at a rate of 20 percent through 2026, which is far faster than the average for most occupations.

The increased need for dental hygienists and other dental professionals can be attributed to several factors. First, as the link between oral health and general health has become clearer, more people are seeking dental services than ever before in an effort to enjoy improved overall health. Second, as the population gets older and older adults require dental procedures like root canals, tooth implants, dentures, and so forth, the need for qualified dental hygienists will only increase. Lastly, as current dental hygienists reach retirement age, there is a need to fill those positions with new workers.

What Degrees are Similar to Dental Hygiene?

Dental AssistingDental assistants perform many of the same tasks as dental hygienists, including greeting patients and making them comfortable in the exam chair, sterilizing instruments, providing assistance during dental procedures, and taking X-rays. Dental assistants are often asked to perform clerical tasks as well, such as scheduling appointments, handling billing, recordkeeping, and the like.

NursingNurses are responsible for the general oversight and coordination of medical care for patients. In that context, nurses assess a patient’s condition, assist doctors and other medical staff with examinations, surgeries, and post-operative care, and develop and execute treatment plans based on each patient’s needs. Furthermore, nurses are responsible for taking vital signs, using medical equipment, teaching patients how to manage illness, and other needed medical tasks.

Medical Assisting – Like dental assistants, medical assistants perform basic tasks that support other staff in providing efficient and safe care. Medical assistants undertake both clinical and clerical tasks, such as assisting doctors with patient examinations, preparing samples for lab tests, and measuring vital signs on the clinical side, and making appointments, recording patient histories, and collecting payments on the clerical side.

Physician AssistingPhysician assistants practice medicine, see patients, prescribe medicine, and many other tasks typically associated with traditional medical doctors. They can do this because they work on a team with doctors, surgeons, or other specialists that oversee their work. Physician assistants can work in all manner of medicine, from obstetrics and pediatrics to emergency medicine and psychiatry. The scope of duties that physician assistants can perform varies from one state to the next.

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