Dentistry is a vital, in-demand, and highly rewarding field. Typically, when we think of dentistry, the first occupation that comes to mind is a dentist – the doctor that assesses our oral X-Rays, diagnoses problems with our teeth and gums, fills our cavities, and tells us to floss more often. But did you know that there are many other excellent and exciting job opportunities within the dental profession?
Today, you don’t have to become a dentist to reap the benefits of this fulfilling medical field. If you do not wish to commit to years of doctoral schooling, and prefer a more affordable and streamlined route towards a dental career, you might consider becoming a dental assistant or a dental hygienist.
The decision to become a dental assistant vs. a dental hygienist is not any easy one to make. The path you choose will depend on your career goals as well as your needs as a prospective student. Before you choose your path, it is important to understand the differences between the two dental careers.
Because dental assistants and dental hygienists work under the supervision of a dentist, people often confuse them as the same position. It is important to note, however, that their roles and responsibilities, as well as their training and education requirements, vary considerably. Dental hygienists typically work one-on-one with patients, while dental assistants take on a more versatile role on the dental team – working as an immediate aide to the dentist as well as throughout the dental office: at the front desk, behind-the-scenes in the lab, and in the exam room.
Below is a breakdown of the key differences between a dental hygienist vs. dental assistant:
Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant Job Duties
Dental hygienists are the professionals that clean and examine your teeth when you go to the dentist. They provide preventive dental care and examine patients for oral diseases. In a dental hygienist role, you can expect to carry out direct, patient care duties such as:
- Removing tartar, plaque, and stains from patients’ teeth
- Applying preventative treatments such as sealants and fluorides
- Taking and developing X-rays
- Examining teeth and gums for oral diseases like gingivitis
- Documenting patient care and treatments
- Administering local anesthetics
- Using oral hygiene and ultrasonic tools
- Educating patients about oral hygiene, such as how to floss correctly
Dental assistants perform many tasks beyond patient care. While some patient care is part of their day-to-day, you can also find dental assistants taking X-rays in the lab or scheduling a patients’ next appointment. Because of their versatility, dental assistants are relied on by the entire dental team – from hygienists to techs to dentists – to ensure that all is running smoothly in the office and that patients are receiving comfortable, quality care. As a dental assistant, you can expect to:
- Prepare patients for their exams and treatments
- Prepare work areas for upcoming procedures
- Sterilize dental instruments
- Assist dentists in during operative, orthodontic, and surgical procedures, along with a wide range of other procedures
- Hand instruments to dentist during procedures and dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
- Take impressions of teeth for study casts
- Process X-rays and complete other lab tasks under direction of the dentist
- Keep records of dental treatments for patients
- Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
- Work with patients on billing, insurance, and payment
- Schedule patient appointments
- Assist with overall office management
- In some states, dental assistants may perform coronal polishing, sealant application, fluoride application, and topical anesthetic application
You can also check out our blog, “What Does a Dental Assistant Do?” to learn more about dental assistants’ multifaceted role.
Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant Education Requirements
To become a dental hygienist today, you need a minimum of an associate degree. An associate degree program in dental hygiene typically takes about two to three years to complete and can be found at many colleges and universities. In a dental hygiene program, you will gain both clinical and classroom instruction. You will study subjects such as physiology, nutrition, radiography, medical ethics, and periodontics. Some schools offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in dental hygiene, which should be pursued if you are looking to get into a research-based, educator, or public practice role.
There are several educational paths you can take towards a dental assisting role. Some states require dental assistants to receive postsecondary education in an accredited dental assisting program. These programs are offered at a certificate, diploma, and associate degree level and are generally shorter in length than a dental hygiene program. Most dental assistant certificate and diploma programs take about a year to complete. A few states just require dental assistants to have on-the-job training, though postsecondary education is preferred.
If you are looking to become a dental assistant in Connecticut, your next step should be to enroll in an accredited program such as Stone Academy’s. Our dental assistant program is comprehensive, offering both classroom learning and hands-on training to aspiring students. Students at Stone gain both administrative and clinical dental assisting skills, as well as knowledge in HIPAA laws, medical ethics, and various medical practice acts. After ten months of on-campus training, students in our dental assisting school are placed in an externship for two months, where they are given the opportunity to apply their skills in a real-life, active dental practice.
Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant Licensing and Certification
All dental hygienists are required to be licensed in the state in which they will practice. To qualify for licensure, you will need to pass a regional or state issued clinical exam.
Typically, states do not require dental assistants to be licensed. However, some states allow dental assistants to perform “expanded functions,” or duties (such as coronal polishing), with an additional credential. In Connecticut, for example, you can become an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant by completing the Dental Assisting National Board’s certified dental assistant examination. This will earn you national certification, expand your roles, and may position you for higher earning potential.
Whether you choose to become a dental hygienist or dental assistant, know that you have a mighty bright future ahead. If you are interested in getting a foot into that dentist office as soon as possible, though, you might lean towards a career as a dental assistant. You can learn more about Stone Academy’s dental assisting school by calling (800) 585-1315 or even Apply Today!