What Is The Difference Between A Dental Assistant And A Dental Hygienist?

"I am currently looking for work as a dental assistant. I saw a dental office posting a vacancy for that of dental hygienists. I am pretty confident that I will be able to handle the job given my work experience but my sister told me that the two are very different from each other. Now I’m confused. Can you please tell me what the difference is between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant?"

asked by Kayla D. from Baltimore, Maryland

Dental assistants and dental hygienists may work together in a dental office but their responsibilities are not the same. For starters, dental assistants, as the name suggests, assist the dentist while the latter is conducting different procedures. Taking and developing x-rays, getting impressions of a patient’s teeth as well as instructing patients on the proper care of teeth are part of the job description of dental assistants.

They also ensure that instruments and equipment are sterilized to prevent patients from getting infections. Dental assistants also work together with patients, reassuring them throughout the entire course of the treatment. They also perform office management tasks.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, deal directly with patients. While they may also take and develop x-rays of teeth and teach clients on the proper care of gums and teeth, they do so much more.

For starters, they clean a patient’s teeth by removing tarter, stains and plaque. They also put on sealants and fluorides on a patient’s teeth to help prevent decay. They can also remove sutures and dressings and can administer local anesthetics. They are also tasked with monitoring the treatment plans of each patient. It is also their responsibility to teach patients the proper way to floss and brush their pearly whites.

In some states, dental hygienists are allowed to put in and carve filling materials, temporary fillings and periodontal dressings. These more complicated tasks cannot be performed by a dental assistant. This is perhaps explained by the fact that the training received by dental hygienists is more comprehensive than that of dental assistants.

In some states, graduating from a one-year accredited dental assisting training program and passing a state exam are the main requirements to gain entry into the profession. In others, the duties of a dental assistant are learned through on-the-job training. In states where certification is a must, aspiring dental assistants must have a high school diploma or be a graduate of an accredited dental assistant program, finish the needed on-the-job training and possess cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification.

They must also pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board before they can be granted the certification to work as an assistant to a dentist.

Dental hygienists have to meet stricter standards. They should hold an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. They need to be licensed as well. Each state has different requirements for licensing dental hygienists but dental hygienists usually need to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program and pass written and practical exams.

Career Spotlight: Dental Hygienist

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