According to recent statistics, the job outlook for dental professionals is exceptionally bright. In fact, the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) recently reported that dental assisting is among the top 25 fastest growing professions in the United States, while the American Dental Association identified dental hygiene as being among the top 30 fastest growing professional fields in the U.S.
The two most common dental support professions are undoubtedly the dental assistant and the dental hygienist, both of which are responsible for providing support services to dentists and oral surgeons. Hygienists and assistants often work together to meet the oral health needs of the patients they serve, whether in a general or specialist dental practice.
However, there are distinct differences between dental assistants and hygienists when it comes to scope of professional duties and responsibilities, education, certification, and licensure.
The Difference Between Dental Hygienists and Dental Assistants
Although their scope of practice may vary slightly from one state to the next, dental hygienists are virtually always licensed dental professionals that are most often responsible for a wide range of dental office duties, including teeth cleaning and corrective and prophylactic procedures. These dental professionals are licensed through the state in which they work, which grants them legal authorization to do everything from apply fluoride and sealants to teeth and remove plaque, to perform diagnostic tests at the request of the dentist. Although dental hygienists serve as part of a dental team, their work often involves providing treatment directly to patients.
Dental assistants, on the other hand, are called upon to assist dentists directly with the tasks they perform. These dental professionals work alongside the dentist, providing assistance during everything from routine cleanings and exams to more complex procedures and oral surgery. Dental assistants also spend a significant amount of time preparing for procedures by assembling all necessary equipment and sterilizing instruments. Dental assistants are often responsible for greeting patients, preparing patients for dental procedures, and ensuring that all paperwork regarding their visit is complete. Depending on state regulations, these dental support professionals may also perform other advanced dental care, such as x-rays and coronal polishing.
Differences in Professional Preparation for Dental Hygienists and Assistants
There are currently more than 330 accredited dental hygiene programs and more than 270 accredited dental assisting programs in the U.S recognized by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
Both dental hygienists and dental assistants complete their education through community/junior colleges, technical colleges, and dental schools, although some dental hygienist programs can be found through four-year colleges and universities, as well. However, the difference between an educational program for a dental hygienist and a dental assistant is that a dental hygienist program results an associate’s degree, while for a dental assistant, the end result is generally a certificate.
A dental hygienist program typically takes about 2 years to complete, while a dental assistant program usually takes between 9 and 11 months to complete. Both programs culminate in a clinical experience.
Dental assistant programs are typically focused solely on the aspects of the profession, both clinical and administrative, while dental hygienist associate degree programs also include:
- Liberal arts coursework (English, psychology, sociology, etc.)
- Basic science coursework (anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pathology, etc.)
- Clinical science coursework (dental hygiene, radiology, etc.)
Upon completion of a dental hygienist associate degree, students must take a licensure examination (state or regional) to become licensed and begin working in a dental office. The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and NBDHE certification is accepted in all states as to allow dental hygienists to fulfill all or part of their written examination requirements for licensure.
For dental assistants, the process is generally quite different from one state to the next. Some states have no educational or certification requirements, while others require dental assistant graduates to take and pass state examinations or examinations through the DANB. The most common DANB certification for dental assistants is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA). Dental assistants in the U.S. are not licensed healthcare professionals, although they may be registered in some states.
Further, although dental assistants may go on to pursue more advanced degrees in the dental or healthcare field, advanced degrees in dental assisting do not exist. However, dental hygienists may go on to pursue both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dental hygiene if they are interested in developing a career in teaching, research or public health.