Helping Dentists Improve Oral Health
Dental hygienists help a dentist by performing several tasks that increase oral health for a parient. Although they commonly clean plaque and other stains from teeth using dental instruments, they may also look for signs of tooth decay, and take mouth x-rays.
Hygienists use instruments to clean and scale teeth, apply sealants and fluorides, and numb a patient’s gums in preparation for the anesthesia applied by the dentist. With appropriate training and licensing, hygienists may also administer local anesthesia. They also discuss oral health with patients and offer methods for keeping teeth health, such as with proper brushing and flossing. Finally, hygienists keep records of their actions and update patient charts with information provided by the dentist.
Dental hygienists need professional training as well as licensing before they can practice in Massachusetts.
The education must be state-approved and can consist of two years at a community college or vocational school. Bachelor’s and master’s programs are also acceptable and available at colleges and universities. The higher degrees are needed for those interesting in research, teaching, or clinical practice. As a prerequisite to training, students need a high-school diploma, GED, or equivalent. High-students will find health education, first aid, anatomy and physiology, and computers helpful. Some training programs also require at least one year of college.
Training combines classroom instruction, laboratory work, and clinical practice. Subjects include anatomy, physiology, use of dental instruments, office management, patient counseling, professional standards, dental procedures, nutrition, radiography, and periodontics, or the study of gum disease.
Useful qualities for hygienists include compassion for seeing procedures from the patient’s point of view, dexterity for using dental tools, physical endurance for standing or bending over patients for long periods, interpersonal skills for interacting with dentists and patients, and an orientation to detail for following exacting procedures.
To receive a license after training, applicants must submit an application, be currently certified in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation/Defibrillation, have good moral character, and pay the necessary fees. They must also pass the following exams:
- American Dental Association National Board Exam for Dental Hygienists. The exam takes about nine hours, including breaks, and tests basic sciences, clinical dental hygiene, and community health and research principles.
- North East Regional Board Dental Hygiene Exam, or similar exam for the state or region.
- This includes a multiple-choice exam simulating patient questions and a clinical component that enables the applicant to demonstrates skill-specific patient treatment knowledge, such as the ability to select permanent teeth with hard deposits at or below the gum line..
- Massachusetts Dental Ethics and Jurisprudence Exam.This tests the applicants’ knowledge of laws governing the dental profession, such as the confidentiality of patient records.
Licenses last two years. To renew, hygienists must pay a renewal fee and have taken at least 20 Continuing Education Units within the two-year period before the renewal. Only four of those CEUs may be for general attendance of a dental convention.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists earn a median $82,390 per year, or $39.61 per hour, in Massachusetts. The lowest earners make less than $63,630 annually, or $30.59 hourly, while the best-paid receive more than $94,670 a year, or $45.51 an hour. Compare these numbers to the median salaries for the entire country at $71,530 per year, or $34.39 per hour.
The metropolitan area with the highest wages for the profession is Leominster-Fitchbur-Gardner at a median $86,860 per year, or $41.76 per hour, followed by Boston-Cambridge-Quincy at $85,200 yearly, or $40.96 hourly, and Barnstable Town at $82,520 per year, or $39.67 per hour.
Hygienists make work full-time or part-time, receiving a straight salary or a combination of commission and salary. They may be paid by dentists, clients, by the day, or by the hour. Full-timers can receive vacation and sick days, and health insurance among other benefits. Part-timers do not generally receive benefits.
The BLS sees jobs for the profession increasing by 19.9 percent in Massachusetts from 2010 to 2020, compared to 11.3 percent for all occupations. (This compares to a projected 33.2 percent growth for all hygienists in the country.) The highest job growth is projected in Bristol County at 25.3 percent.
Demand will come from the ongoing research that links oral health with general health. Dentists whose practices expand will also hire more hygienists to perform routine procedures, allowing the dentist to see more patients. An aging baby-boom population also keeps more of their original teeth, which require the treatment and maintenance provided by hygienist. As federal health legislation increases the number of people who have dental health insurance, those patients are likely to seek more dental treatment, spurring demand for professionals.