Making the decision about which dental career path to take can be challenging. There are several options available, each requiring different levels of education and providing different types of work. A dental assistant typically performs a wide range of administrative and dental care for patients. A dental hygienist, by comparison, is focused on examinations, patient education, and teeth cleaning. Let’s take a closer look at these two paths.
What Is a Dental Assistant?
A dental assistant is a person trained to perform a variety of tasks. This includes both administrative work as well as dental procedure duties. Some of the work they do may include:
- Preparing and sterilizing dental instruments
- Conducting dental x-rays
- Helping to get patients settled into a dental chair
- Providing patient education on oral hygiene practices
- Handling billing and payment processes
- Scheduling appointments
Each state has specific rules about what a dental assistant may do based on their education. A dental assistant may also be allowed to do some dental work in some states. That may include applying fluoride, sealants, or topical anesthetic products in preparation for other needs.
The education requirements for dental assistants and hygienists are also different. Many states do not have any formal education requirements, and there is no licensing test. Other states require individuals to have a one- or two-year education from an accredited provider. Choosing a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation may be necessary. A few states require individuals to obtain a certification from the Dental Assisting National Board.
What Is a Dental Hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a professional who has a bit more training and specific education to allow them to complete their job. Some of the work they do may include:
- Examining patients to check for oral disease
- Educating patients on preventative oral care
- Cleaning teeth
- Using dental tools for cleaning or other dental care
- Take x-rays of the mouth for various reasons
Individuals working as dental hygienists may also do other work such as applying sealants, giving fluoride treatments, and removing plaque and stains from a person’s mouth. They may also complete an assessment of a person’s mouth and then make recommendations for care.
The education requirements for a hygienist may also be different. Again, state laws govern most of these rules, however, most states require individuals to have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene to work in this area. Most of the time, this means having completed your education through an accredited program through the Commission on Dental Accreditation. These programs often take two years to complete and provide extensive knowledge of the work you may be doing. They may cover topics such as medical ethics, radiography, anatomy, and nutrition. In addition, all states require individuals working as dental hygienists to have a state-issued license and meet all of the requirements set for education leading up to this. It is not likely that a student will need to complete a bachelor’s degree to get into this field, but it may be necessary for those who wish to focus on research in the field.
Both Positions Require Patient Care
The dental work that either a hygienist or an assistant does may range. However, those working in either field need to have the skills to meet patient needs. These skills may include being able to listen well and communicate clearly. You may also need to demonstrate specific skills in the industry based on the type of work needed.
Which Path Should You Take?
Working as either a dental assistant or a dental hygienist can be a rewarding level of care. Keep in mind that assistants do more of the administrative work in the dental office while also providing some level of support for the dentist’s needs. A hygienist does more of the work on their own, including working with patients for teeth cleanings.
Completing your education is a big part of the job in both cases. In some situations, you may be able to earn the education necessary to complete either path. The key here is to be sure you love what you are doing. The right educational program can help you to determine which path is best for your needs.
Also, be sure to consider the licensing requirements in your state before you make a decision. If you want to get to work sooner, a dental assistant position may be the route to take.
Reach Out to Caris College to Find Your Path Forward
At Caris College, we want to give you the tools you need to achieve success. That includes providing a comprehensive dental assistant program designed to support your best outcome. Learn more about this program and how we can help you start your future career.