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Dental Assistant or Hygienist, Which to Choose?

Dental hygienists and assistants are in high demand. While both seem to perform very similar tasks, they are in fact quite different, and deciding which path to pursue can be challenging.

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants perform tasks to prepare for and clean up after, procedures and visits. They also handle patient instruction on the proper tooth and gum care, or advice on tasks to be undertaken after a procedure.

Most dental visits begin with an x-ray. Dental assistants usually manage this part of the process, providing the film to the hygienist or dentist for development. Similarly, instruments needed in a procedure are usually disinfected by the assistant, who is also responsible for providing them to the dentist when requested during procedures.

Finally, assistants may be tasked with office clerical work. Since patients often have basic dental questions when making appointments, it is important that the front desk worker is able to answer them. Assistants are also responsible for billing patients and working with insurance companies.

Average wages for dental assistants were $34,500 as of May 2012, with a 25% employment rise projected to 2022.

Because assistants work with x-ray machines and have other specialized knowledge, states require that they are licensed. While requirements differ, programs generally take less than a year to complete and are offered by community colleges or vocational schools. Accelerated training is also available, and distance learning options help those for whom a physical learning environment is less practical. Certification is achieved by passing a national standardized exam after completing an accredited training program. Two years of full-time work experience also substitutes for the training program to meet the exam requirement.

Dental Hygienists

The Hygienist’s role is more advanced. Expected to perform certain dental procedures, hygienists are usually tasked with cleaning teeth and developing x-ray film. Many tasks once performed by dentists are now the purview of the hygienist, whose duties differ from state to state. For instance, a hygienist might remove stitches, filling cavities and using anesthetic.

Hygienists earn twice what assistants do, taking home $70,210 in 2012. Growth is also projected to rise much more sharply, projected at 33% by 2020.

Hygienists’ educational requirements are also more significant. Unlike assistants, they must complete a two to a four-year degree program at a college or university, earning an associate degree. Once complete, the national exam must be passed to obtain a hygienist’s license. Additional training is available for those wishing to advance their careers even further. Unlike assistants, hygienists are expected to have a more firm background in biology and health, and initial training in these areas is recommended before applying to a hygienist training program.

Which to Choose?

The answer to this is complex. In general, whether to become a dental assistant or hygienist is primarily determined by what activities are of interest, and how much time and money are available for additional education.

The lesser education requirements of becoming a dental assistant offer several advantages. Not only is the time and money investment less, but dental assistants gain clinical experience quicker. For anyone uncertain about a career in the dental field, becoming an assistant is a quick way to learn how good the fit truly is.

While the dental hygienist program has a higher education requirement, programs are more well-rounded. The associate degree offers classes in business administration, public speaking, sociology and other liberal arts. Should a dental career not work out, graduates of dental hygienist programs have other options to which they may turn. Anyone without a higher education may wish to pursue dental hygiene if only to gain skills that transfer well to other careers.

Further, consider the attributes of a dental career that seem appealing. While both assistants and hygienists do work in dental offices, the ways in which they interact with patients differ drastically. Assistants must work to put a pleasant face on something that many fear or dislike. By contrast, hygienists are focused more on competently performing dental procedures. It is, of course, expected that both have good people skills, but their importance is more significant for assistants than for hygienists.

For those with less time for education, or with more of an interest in working directly with people, becoming a dental assistant is a great choice. If interests lie more in the science and biology behind dentistry, then the educational opportunities and tasks performed by the dental hygienist are a better match. Regardless, both careers are very promising with significant growth potential over the coming decade.