Dental Hygienist Degree Programs and Training

Dental hygienists have come to play increasingly crucial and diverse roles in the field of dentistry. As the health care industry continues to shift focus toward preventative care, graduates of the nearly 300 accredited dental hygiene associate degree programs in the US have been called upon to take on a range of professional responsibilities. Far beyond simply cleaning teeth, dental hygienists may also administer diagnostic x-rays, perform oral cancer screenings, teach young patients proper oral care techniques, provide much needed counseling on the correlation between good nutrition and sustained oral health, and more. Simply put, if you've been having regular check-ups, chances are you've spent at least as much time in the care of a licensed dental hygienist as an actual dentist. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), well-trained dental hygienists are also called upon to conduct initial patient screenings, apply sealants and fluoride treatments, create oral casts used to evaluate treatment needs, and perform various documentation and office management activities.

Dental hygienist degree programs

While there are several different routes to becoming a practicing dental hygienist, the most common involves completing a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree program. These degrees are offered by dental schools and universities, as well as at community and technical colleges. There are also an emerging number of online and low-residency options. The ADA notes most certification programs prefer applicants who have completed at least one year of college and who have taken courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and speech.

The associate degree training, which includes supervised patient care experience, is designed to enable students to pass mandatory national and state licensure examinations and obtain the combination of technical skills and clinical know-how necessary to thrive in a therapeutic setting. For further career advancement, bachelor's (BS) and master's (MS) degrees in dental hygiene, which generally entail an additional two-to-four years of schooling, are available. These degrees are required for work in the rapidly expanding research, educational and administrative/managerial sectors of the field.

Dental hygienist training and areas of study

Dental hygienist programs address the twin challenges of thoughtfully counseling patients while providing professional treatment of a technical nature by emphasizing a wide range of subjects for training and study. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), dental hygienist schools should offer laboratory, clinical and classroom instruction, in which hygienists study anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography and periodontology.

A supervised internship working with patients under the supervision of a dental hygienist is an integral part of many programs. The ADA points out that a well-rounded course of study for dental hygienists also includes classes in the liberal arts (English and sociology); basic science (anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, and pathology); and specific clinical sciences (including radiology). Other specific areas of concentration include:

  • Oral hygiene
  • Nutrition and health
  • Behavioral science
  • Equipment operation and maintenance
  • Patient education and counseling
  • Office management
  • Dental materials
  • Community dental health service

Career outlook for dental hygienists

The most recent BLS report indicates that the national median annual salary for dental hygienists was $71,110 in May of 2013. The average hourly wage was $34.19, an important factor in a profession in which the BLS estimates that a significant number of people work part-time or for more than one practice. As the ADA points out in its literature, "The flexibility offered by full- and part-time employment options and availability of evening and weekend hours enable dental hygienists to balance their career and lifestyle needs."

The career prospects for licensed dental hygienists are expected to remain strong, with the BLS projecting growth of 33 percent between 2012 and 2022. According to the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook, ongoing research linking oral hygiene to overall health and federal policies that are expanding the number of people who have access to dental care have combined to expand the need for dental health services. The American Dental Hygienists Association further confirms that demand for well-trained dental hygienists is increasing across the board, in private dental practices, community clinics, schools, and nursing homes, as well as at corporate, research, and educational institutions. Both the ADHA and the ADA maintain websites with more information about dental hygiene programs and careers, including details about scholarships, grants and fellowships.

Sources:

Career: Dental Hygiene, The College Board Big Future, 2014, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/careers/health-technology-dental-hygienists

Career Paths, American Dental Hygienists Association, 2014, https://www.adha.org/professional-roles

Dental Hygienist Job Description, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist

Dental Hygienist Education and Training Requirements, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist/education-training-requirements-dental-hygienist

Dental Hygienist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm

Dental Hygienist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292021.htm

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