How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists provide the vast majority of hands-on care in any dental office with the goal of helping patients reach their optimum dental health. Fortunately, now is an excellent time to get in on the ground floor of this growing profession. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, an ongoing interest in oral health will likely result in heavy demand for dental hygienists in the coming years. The following article provides a basic overview on how to become a dental hygienist- and what to expect once you do.

Dental hygienist program requirements and prerequisites

Most aspiring dental hygienists start on the path toward this career by enrolling in an accredited dental hygiene program. According to the BLS, most dental hygienists need only an associate degree to take licensure examinations and qualify for employment. However, dental hygienists who desire to work in research, teaching or clinical practice can also pursue a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene. Requirements for admission to a dental hygienist program may vary from school to school, but the following requirements are most common according to the American Dental Association:

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Prerequisites including health, biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and speech
  • Preference may be given to students who have completed one year of college

Students who enroll in dental hygiene programs can also expect to take courses in liberal arts, basic sciences and clinical sciences. In addition to the classroom component of their studies, dental hygiene students should also expect to complete a clinical rotation where they will learn the hands-on skills required to perform basic dental procedures and participate in supervised patient care experiences.

Dental hygienist necessary skills and qualifications

In addition to looking for employees with a broad base of knowledge, dental offices also prefer to hire candidates who exhibit excellent "soft skills." According to the BLS, those skills can include compassion for patients who might need to undergo painful procedures, a gentle and welcoming bedside manner, and/or interpersonal skills that help them work effectively with others in the office. Other helpful skills include dexterity and physical stamina, which are both a requirement for a career in dental hygiene since the majority of working hours are spent standing up and working with patients. An excellent attention to detail is also a must since dental hygienists are required to remember and adhere to specific rules and protocols and work without any direct supervision.

Although requirements vary from state to state, all dental hygienists are required show a passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and become licensed in order to work in this profession.

Working environment for dental hygienists

According to the BLS, the vast majority of dental hygienists work with dentists and dental assistants in a dental office setting. Work days are generally spent providing patients with basic care such as basic teeth and gum care, fluoride application and dental x-rays. In order to protect themselves, dental hygienists typically wear surgical masks, safety glasses, and gloves, and follow specific safety precautions around x-ray machinery.

The BLS reports excellent job prospects for dental hygienists in the coming years. Specifically, the BLS projects a 33 percent increase in employment for dental hygienists nationally from 2012 to 2022. The BLS attributes this expected surge in employment to an increased focus on dental health, baby boomers keeping their teeth and requiring dental care, and expanded dental coverage. As dentists grow their practices to make room for new patients, they are expected to need additional dental hygienists to perform basic care and keep patient records.

Sources:

Dental Hygienists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm#tab-1

Dental Hygienists 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

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