While visiting a dental clinic, notice how the dental staff does not only consist of the dentist but also a dental hygienist.

A dental hygienist’s role and responsibilities will be different from the dentist given their qualifications.

However, it is possible that your treatment is left with the hygienist rather than the dentist.

This article discusses what a dental hygienist does and how they can help you look after your teeth.

Keep reading below to know more about these dental health practitioners.

dental staff

Types and Roles of Dental Health Care Professionals

Dentist 

Seeing a dentist for oral health needs and problems is recommended every 6 months.

They can prevent and treat oral health problems.

Their roles include:

  • diagnosing and treating the problems related to teeth and gums whether it is injuries, disease or abnormality
  • doing restorative procedures such as treating damage by tooth decay
  • doing preventive treatments such as scaling, fluoride therapy and cleaning
  • carrying out surgical procedures such as teeth removal
  • making and designing oral appliances such as dentures and mouthguards
  • providing specialist services, treatment, diagnosis, management and assessment services
  • detecting abnormalities by using X-rays and making treatment plans

Dental Hygienist 

Dental hygienists use preventive and therapeutic methods for oral care and preventing oral disease.

They also help in educating patients of all ages about oral diseases to maintain good dental hygiene and health.

Their pivotal role is to provide:

  • assessment
  • management
  • diagnosis
  • treatment
  • and education over oral health

Orthodontists 

The role of an orthodontist is to treat any alignment problems in your mouth.

Corrective devices and oral appliances can fix the position of your teeth and jaws.

These include using braces, retainers and aligners.

Dental Therapists 

A dental therapist may treat patients that are younger than 18 years of age.

They will carry out:

  • diagnosis
  • oral health assessment of the patient
  • routine treatment, dental impressions, examinations of X-rays and other management and preventive services

A dental therapist usually has to complete a 3-year bachelors course to qualify to work.

health practitioners

Other Health Practitioners

Endodontists 

An endodontist’s role is to maintain teeth that include the soft inner tissue present in the teeth i.e. the pulp.

They will carry out procedures such as the root canal treatment.

This removes the damaged and infected pulp.

Hence, endodontists deal with procedures that go beyond the tooth’s outer structure.

Oral Health Therapist

Like dental therapists, oral health therapists also work with patients under 18 years of age.

However, they have dual qualifications of a hygienist and a dental therapist.

Thus, they can work as both or any one.

Therefore, their role also combines the two.

  • diagnosis, treatment and oral health assessment
  • educating patients
  • preventative and management services which includes filling, gum treatment and tooth extraction

Oral and Maxillofacial surgeons 

Treating conditions of the jaw, teeth, mouth and face including injuries.

Such as oral cancers, impacted wisdom teeth, cysts and tumors in jaw, facial injuries, cleft palate.

Dental Prosthetists

Dental prosthetists deal with dental appliances.

They are responsible for fitting, fixing, supplying, making and repairing these appliances.

Hence their role would entail:

  • assessment and training
  • provision and management of dentures
  • educating
  • providing removable and flexible mouthguards for sports or teeth grinding

They will need to complete a 3 years bachelor’s degree or 1-year postgrad degree to qualify to work.

Periodontists 

These are gum disease specialists.

They will not only diagnose and treat but also prevent the diseases of the surrounding tissues that support teeth.

Your dentist can refer to a periodontist if you have severe gum disease and periodontal disease.

Through a periodontist, you can get specialized treatment.

Now that you know the different health practitioners in a clinical practice, let’s move on to know what exactly a dental hygienist do.

dental hygienist work

Responsibilities of a Dental Hygienist

A dental hygienist usually works independently with supervision from a licensed dentist.

They prevent and treat diseases, thereby reducing a significant amount of burden on dentists.

They will be performing procedures like scaling, examining patients for the presence of oral disease and educating patients on improving oral health while the dentists can perform complex procedures.

Their role and responsibilities entail the following:

Screening and Examining Patients 

Before dentists perform any treatment on patients, the hygienist examines and screens the patient for oral disease and problems such as tooth decay.

They can take a quick look at the head, neck and mouth to detect problems timely.

Taking Patient History 

Taking medical history will allow the dentist and hygienist to make a plan about the treatment.

It is necessary to know the patient’s prior dental work and medical conditions.

Knowing the symptoms and important information on treatments beforehand can prevent any medical emergency and you can evaluate the oral health risks.

Moreover, you can know the changes to their health, medicines and allergies.

All of this information will guide the patient’s personalized treatment plan.

Taking Dental X-rays 

One of the roles involves examining dental X-rays.

X-rays help to spot any dental problems in the early stages.

Therefore, a dental hygienist can detect cavities, gum disease, tumors and oral infections increasing the efficiency of work.

They are often a common part of a hygienist’s work.

Doing Dental Cleanings 

One procedure that is part of a hygienist’s job is dental cleaning.

This includes removing, tartar, plaque and stains from the teeth in order to remove the risk of cavities and tooth loss.

Plus, the procedure of scaling and cleaning gives patients a brighter smile.

If you are going for teeth cleaning at a dental clinic, a hygienist will most probably perform it.

role of dental hygienist

Other Roles

Apply and Education about Preventive Care of Teeth

Once the hygienist cleans your teeth and performs other procedures, they will begin to apply and educate you on preventive care.

This includes applying fluoride varnish and sealants.

Both prevent the onset of decay hence, protecting your teeth from cavities and tooth loss.

In fact, fluoride also helps to reverse early decay.

A hygienist will apply fluoride treatments between appointments because it strengthens teeth and fortifies the enamel to prevent acid erosion.

Similarly, a sealant protects the chewing surfaces at the back of the teeth, in children.

This prevents the molars from decaying.

Documenting the Treatment 

Before you see a dentist, you will see a hygienist.

After taking the history, screening for some oral disease and cleaning, they will report your condition to the dentist.

They will tell the patient about the findings on the condition and what treatment the doctor will pursue.

Plus, a hygienist also looks into the documentation of the treatment the dentist performs.

They maintain dental records thus taking note of everything that is done and said during your dental appointment.

Teaching Good Oral Hygiene Practices 

Remember how we mentioned education as one of a dentist’s role?

Teaching and educating your patients about how to maintain good oral hygiene is one of the crucial responsibilities of a hygienist.

They can guide over how to brush and floss properly, suggest recommendations for selecting oral care devices and will also highlight the importance of maintaining oral hygiene.

They will also discuss how you can maintain good hygiene by incorporating healthy behavior and habits.

This includes keeping a check on your diet that affects your dental health and equipping patients with the essential knowledge of the techniques that will improve their oral health.

dentist explaining to staff

Dental Hygienist vs Dentist

Your career as a dental hygienist will be different from that of a dentist.

This difference arises due to the training and education requirements.

A degree in dental hygiene can be an associate degree level of 2 years or a bachelor’s degree of 4 years.

You can take the exam after doing the dental hygiene program and passing it makes you a dental hygienist.

The states require this license so that you can practice officially.

After clearing you can include the initials RDH, registered dental hygienist before your name.

After that, your job outlook and roles will comprise what we have discussed above.

According to the bureau of labor statistics in the United States, the mean annual dental hygienist salary in May 2021 was $77,810. 

The roles, wages and training for a dentist are, however, different.

Dentists require a few more years of education among which dental school is a must requirement.

To get there, a student needs to study science subjects in an undergrad degree program.

A general dentist can begin patient care after dental school, those who wish to specialize will need another few years in training in the residency program.

Next, you will need a license to practice in your state and in your specialty.

Speaking of roles and responsibilities, a dentist can look into several of your oral care problems including diagnosing, treating and preventing oral disease.

Though, many may need a dental hygienist by their side to reduce the workload.

Summing Up, 

Whenever you visit a dental clinic, you may encounter a dental hygienist first.

If you only need scaling and cleaning, they may end up treating you instead of a dentist.

Make sure to ask important questions about maintaining your oral health from them as it’s their responsibility to guide about protecting your health.