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Dental Hygiene vs. Dental Assisting: What Are the Differences?

February 22, 2021

When looking at a career as a dental hygienist or a dental assistant, these two job titles may seem interchangeable. As you begin to look into the roles and responsibilities of each one, you soon realize that these are separate professions. While some of their job duties overlap, the daily work of each dental professional is different. In this article, we look at the differences and similarities between dental hygiene vs. dental assisting.

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a healthcare professional who cleans and examines their patients' teeth and gums. Oftentimes, they are the person patients see before the dentist. They are responsible for the following tasks:

  • Use specialized dental tools, such as ultrasonic toothbrushes and power polishing devices, to thoroughly clean patients' teeth and gums.
  • Use handheld tools to remove tartar and plaque from patients' teeth.
  • Examine patients' mouths for signs of tooth decay, gum issues and other oral diseases.
  • Take X-rays of patients' teeth for the dentist to review.
  • Communicate any questions or concerns for the dentist to address when examining a patient.
  • Document treatment plans and examination findings on a patient's file.
  • Review patients' dental history to learn more about their oral hygiene habits and previous issues.
  • Meet with the dentist to come up with a treatment plan for a patient.
  • Teach patients the best practices for effective oral hygiene.

Related: Learn About Being a Dental Hygienist

What is a dental assistant?

A dental assistant is a healthcare professional who supports and assists dentists. They are typically responsible for setting up and breaking down a dentist's workspace. Some of their common duties include:

  • Check patients in, updating their medical history and other important personal information.
  • Help dental professionals take X-rays of patients' teeth.
  • Provide assistance with dental procedures, such as scanning teeth, making molds, extractions and fillings.
  • Disinfect and organize tools and instruments for the dentist and dental hygienist to use.
  • Prepare billing statements for patients and processing payments.
  • Check out patients, giving them any final instructions for dental care or follow-up appointments.

Related: Learn About Being a Dental Assistant

The differences between dental hygiene vs. dental assisting

Here are the main differences between a dental hygienist vs. a dental assistant:

Administrative duties

While both a dental hygienist and a dental assistant may do administrative duties, a dental assistant tends to be more involved in these kinds of responsibilities. Dental assistants tend to be in charge of processing patient paperwork, getting them checked in and out of their appointment and scheduling follow-up care.

Patient care

A dental assistant tends to be responsible for everything leading up to when a dental hygienist works with a patient. The dental assistant prepares the examination room, greets patients, leads them to the examination room and learns about any dental concerns a patient might have. Depending on your location, a dental assistant may be able to do some basic cleaning procedures, such as polishing teeth and administering fluoride, topical anesthetic and sealants.

When comparing these two careers, a dental hygienist's role heavily focuses on cleaning and examining a patient's teeth and gums. While they perform routine cleanings, they may also perform more extensive care for patients who have a wide variety of oral diseases and issues. A dental hygienist collaborates with the dentist to look for signs of tooth decay and other issues in the mouth. They are responsible for educating patients about proper oral care.

Training

While each state has its own educational and training requirements, dental hygienists are typically in school longer than dental assistants. A dental hygienist typically needs to earn an associate's degree in dental hygiene, with many programs taking you three years to complete. After completing their program, dental hygienists often have to pass an accredited training program and multiple exams to earn their license to practice.

The most education dental assistants usually have to complete is a one-year diploma or certificate program. They may also have to earn a license to work as a dental assistant. Keep in mind, these factors vary by state.

Related: Learn About Working in a Dental Laboratory

How to choose between becoming a dental hygienist or a dental assistant

Follow these steps to pick between these two career paths:

1. Learn the job duties

When determining if you want to go into dental assisting or dental hygiene, consider the job duties of these career paths. If you are someone who is highly organized and already have administrative experience, you may want to look into dental assisting. In this role, you ensure that the dentist's office is operating effectively.

If you are someone who enjoys working closely with patients, you may prefer a career in dental hygiene. In this role, you can renew a patient's smile and help them live a healthier lifestyle. Those who are passionate about oral hygiene can thrive in this career.

Related: Top 8 Jobs in the Dental Field

2. Research required programs

Before choosing a career path, get to know the educational and training requirements for your state. Consider things like the length, cost and location of programs you are interested in. If you want to test out a dental-related career, you might consider becoming a dental assistant first since it requires less schooling. When you are ready for more schooling, you can decide if you want to become a dental hygienist or if you prefer working as a dental assistant.

Related: How to Become a Dental Hygienist (With FAQ)

3. Consider job outlook

Considering the demand for a certain job title is an important part of choosing a career. This can ensure that you have job security when you complete your program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both of these careers have a positive job outlook for 2019 to 2029. Dental hygienists have a projected growth rate of 6% while dental assistants have a projected growth rate of 7%. These rates are both higher than the average growth rate for all occupations.

4. Know average salaries

While money isn't everything, it is an important factor to consider when picking a career. A dental hygienist makes an average of $78,117 per year while a dental assistant makes an average of $37,357 per year. Common benefits for both of these careers include prescription drug insurance, retirement contributions and paid-time-off. Dental hygienists tend to also receive an employee discount and professional development assistance.

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