Why Pursue A Dental Hygienist Career?

Job Description: Dental hygienists perform somewhat more advanced dental tasks than dental assistants, but do not receive the same training that dentists do. Some of the tasks that hygienists perform include examining patients' teeth and gums for diseases; removing calculus, stains, and plaque; taking and developing dental x-rays; applying fluorides or other cavity-preventing agents; and teaching patients about good oral hygiene and other preventative dental care. Hygienists sometimes work chairside with a dentist during treatment.

Many hygienists also use dental instruments to clean and polish teeth, and administer local anesthetics to patients in preparation for dental procedures.

Work Environment: Dental hygienists enjoy flexible schedules, and can work full-time, part-time, evening, and weekend schedules. Many hygienists hold jobs in more than one dental office, as dentists oftentimes hire hygienists to work two or three days a week.

Dental offices are clean, well-lit environments. When working, it is important for hygienists to follow health safeguards, including wearing protective equipment (safety glasses, surgical masks and gloves).

Education and Training Requirements: Dental hygienists must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Prospective dental hygienists must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school, and must also pass both a written and clinical examination. Most dental hygiene programs end in an associate's degree, although some schools are starting to offer a certificate program, or a bachelor's or a master's degree. The minimum education level required to work in a private dental office is a certificate or an associate's degree.

Hygienists must also be comfortable working with dental instruments, as they are often working within a patient's mouth with little room for error.

Salary Range: Earnings for dental hygienists vary by geographic location, employment setting, and experience. Some hygienists will land salaried jobs; while others will be paid on an hourly, daily, or commission basis. This is due to the flexible scheduling typically involved with the work, as outlined above.

Median hourly earnings of hygienists in 2002 was $26.59, with most of the salaries ranging from $21.96 to $32.48 an hour.

Job Outlook: Owing to the increased demand for dental care by a growing population, as well as an increased reliance on hygienists to perform services previously done by dentists, prospects for dental hygienists are expected to be quite good. The profession is projected to be among the fastest-growing occupations through 2012.

Dentists are expected to hire more hygienists to perform basic duties and preventative dental care as their workload increases. In addition, older dentists, who are typically less likely to employ hygienists, are getting replaced by younger, recent graduates, who are much more likely to employ hygienists as support staff.

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