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06-May. 2011

The Dental Hygienist Career

There are a lot of reasons to consider becoming a dental hygienist. The pay is good, the career opportunities abound and you can find work virtually anywhere. Read on to discover more about this great health care career.

From the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Nature of the work

Dental hygienists remove soft and hard deposits from teeth, teach patients how to practice good oral hygiene, and provide other preventive dental care. They examine patients’ teeth and gums, recording the presence of diseases or abnormalities.

Dental hygienists use an assortment of tools to complete their tasks. Hand and rotary instruments and ultrasonic devices are used to clean and polish teeth, which includes removing tartar, stains, and plaque. Hygienists use x-ray machines to take dental pictures, and sometimes develop the film. They may use models of teeth to explain oral hygiene, perform root planning as a periodontal therapy, or apply cavity-preventative agents such as fluorides and pit and fissure sealants.

Other tasks hygienists may perform vary by State. In some States, hygienists are allowed to administer anesthetics, while in others they administer local anesthetics using syringes. Some States also allow hygienists to place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings, and periodontal dressings; remove sutures; and smooth and polish metal restorations.

Dental hygienists also help patients develop and maintain good oral health. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health or inform patients how to select toothbrushes and show them how to brush and floss their teeth.

Hygienists sometimes make a diagnosis and other times prepare clinical and laboratory diagnostic tests for the dentist to interpret. Hygienists sometimes work chair-side with the dentist during treatment.

Work environment. Dental hygienists work in clean, well-lighted offices. Important health safeguards include strict adherence to proper radiological procedures and the use of appropriate protective devices when administering anesthetic gas. Dental hygienists also wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. Dental hygienists also should be careful to avoid possible shoulder and neck injury from sitting for long periods of time while working with patients.

Flexible scheduling is a distinctive feature of this job. Full-time, part-time, evening, and weekend schedules are common. Dentists frequently hire hygienists to work only 2 or 3 days a week, so hygienists may hold jobs in more than one dental office. In 2008, about half of all dental hygienists worked part time—less than 35 hours a week.

Job Outlook

Dental hygienists rank among the fastest growing occupations. Job prospects are expected to be favorable in most areas, but competition for jobs is likely in some areas.

Employment change. Employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow 36 percent through 2018, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This projected growth ranks dental hygienists among the fastest growing occupations, in response to increasing demand for dental care and more use of hygienists.

The demand for dental services will grow because of population growth, older people increasingly retaining more teeth, and a growing emphasis on preventative dental care. To help meet this demand, facilities that provide dental care, particularly dentists’ offices, will increasingly employ dental hygienists, often to perform services that have been performed by dentists in the past. Ongoing research indicating a link between oral health and general health also will spur the demand for preventative dental services, which are typically provided by dental hygienists.

Job prospects. Job prospects are expected to be favorable in most areas, but will vary by geographical location. Because graduates are permitted to practice only in the State in which they are licensed, hygienists wishing to practice in areas that have an abundance of dental hygiene programs may experience strong competition for jobs.

Older dentists, who have been less likely to employ dental hygienists, are leaving the occupation and will be replaced by recent graduates, who are more likely to employ one or more hygienists. In addition, as dentists’ workloads increase, they are expected to hire more hygienists to perform preventive dental care, such as cleaning, so that they may devote their own time to more complex procedures.

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