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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

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Dental Hygienists211,60019.6%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

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.

Dental Hygienist Certification and Licensure

Proper training is essential for dental hygienists who are often called upon to perform the vast majority of their patient's hands-on dental care. Common tasks for dental hygienists include performing basic dental procedures such as cleaning, applying sealants and fluoride, and taking dental x-rays. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), these tasks may be performed with or without direct supervision by a licensed dentist. Most of the skills required by dental hygienists can be learned in an accredited dental hygiene school. However, some of the skills required for dental hygiene, such as compassion and interpersonal skills, can be learned nearly anywhere. In addition to learning the hands-on skills required for a career in dental hygiene and an appropriate bedside manner, all dental hygienists must also become licensed in order to practice in the profession. The following article details how licensure works and why it is essential for anyone pursuing this career.

Dental hygiene educational requirements

According to the American Dental Association, dental hygienists generally receive their associate or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene by attending dental hygiene programs offered by community colleges, universities or technical schools. A few schools may offer dental hygiene certification programs, but they generally require the same amount of study as associate degree programs. Upon completion of a dental hygiene program, students must then take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and apply for licensure in their state. Other requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but can include:

  • Graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Passing grade on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Passing grade on any applicable regional or state clinical board examination
  • Proof of CPR certification
  • A recommendation letter from dentists in the state where you plan to work
  • High school and college transcripts
  • Official letters from board of dentistry

Benefits of dental hygiene licensure

Professional certification in the dental hygiene profession generally comes in the form of licensure. According to the BLS, all dental hygienists must gain licensure in their state in order to work in their chosen profession, though licensing requirements can vary greatly from state to state. Becoming licensed as a dental hygienist not only makes a career in dental hygiene possible, but it also protects the dental industry and dental patients by ensuring high standards and uniformity for all dental procedures and basic care.

Completion of all licensing requirements in your state means you are then allowed to use "R.D.H." after your name in order to show that you are a Registered Dental Hygienist. This designation should be displayed with pride since it shows that you have completed all licensing requirements and displayed your proficiency and knowledge of dental hygiene and patient care.

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.

Dental Hygienist Salary

Dental Hygienist Salary

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Dental Hygienists$74,680$51,180$101,330
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning patients' teeth, taking dental x rays, and educating people about proper hygiene. Typically dental hygienists are paid by the hour rather than salaried. There are some dental practices that pay hygienists on a commission plan where they also earn a percentage of the profits from what they sell or how much work they produce in a day.

Another potential positive draw for this line of work is how quickly you may be able to enter the workforce. A two year associate degree is the minimum requirement needed to practice, which could mean that you are able to begin earning sooner than careers that require a higher degree.

Is it difficult to find a job in this field?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics dental hygiene is one of the faster growing occupations. As technology advances in the field of dental health demand for qualified people to fill these roles may occur. The American Care Act is also expected to expand the number of people with health insurance so there may be more individuals who need to visit the dentist, possibly prompting the need for more hygienists.

Is there room for advancement in this field?

You may be able to advance within the individual practice you work for, but the advancement in the field is very limited. The next step in the employment chain would be to become a full dentist, which would require several more years of school.

Are there any licensing requirements for this field?

Every state requires a dental hygienist to be licensed in order to practice. This is handled by the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA). In order to earn this license the ADHA recommends you complete the following steps:

  • Graduate with a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Complete a state or regional clinical board exam
  • Earn CPR certification
  • Submit high school and postsecondary transcripts, as well as letters of recommendation from licensed dentists in the state you wish to earn your license
  • Letters from your state or regional board of dentistry

As each state has particular requirements you should visit their individual boards of dentistry to find out which steps you need to take to obtain your license.

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

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 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

Licensure, American Dental Hygiene Association, 2014, http://www.adha.org/licensure

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

Dental Hygienists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012,

http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm

Licensure, American Dental hygienists' Association,

https://www.adha.org/licensure

Dental Hygienist Schools