If you’re interested in helping people improve their oral health, becoming a dental hygienist may be a rewarding career path. As vital contributors to many modern dental offices, these well-paid specialists have seen demand for their services increase significantly in recent years.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Broadly speaking, dental hygienists are expected to help patients maintain and improve their oral health. Although primarily employed in general dentistry offices and dental specialty clinics, hygienists may also find work in nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities.
Working under the supervision of a licensed dentist, hygienists are tasked with conducting patient assessments, teaching proper oral hygiene, and inspecting patients’ teeth and gums. Additionally, because they are responsible for removing plaque and calculus from patient’s teeth, hygienists must be skilled in an array of cleaning techniques.
What Tasks Can a Dental Hygienist Legally Perform?
As with many other healthcare fields, the rules and regulations associated with dental hygienists vary by state. In Wisconsin, the services a hygienist can provide are best understood in relation to the level of dentist supervision required.
When a hygienist delivers local anesthesia, places periodontal dressings, removes periodontal dressings, or removes sutures, a licensed dentist must be present. On the other hand, only prior dentist authorization is required when providing or administering prophylactic services, X-rays, topical anesthesia, fluoride, pit/fissure sealants, root planning, and sturdy cast impressions. As of April 2014, directly supervised dental hygienists are also allowed to administer nitrous oxide to patients.
Are There Requirements for Dental Hygienists?
In order to become dental hygienists, candidates must undergo specialized training and pass a licensing exam. Most hygienists earn an Associate of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene degree through a vocational school, dental college, or community college. Typically lasting two years, these degree programs include a mix of practical and theoretical training. In class, students can expect to learn about oral pathology, radiology, periodontics, and a range of other career-specific topics. During clinical work, students learn and practice a variety of related standards, procedures, and techniques.
Of special note, because of the hands-on nature of the job, dental hygienists often require excellent physical stamina and dexterity. Working in awkward physical positions can lead to an increased risk for injury, and special care should be taken during training to learn proper body mechanics. Likewise, because the job requires direct and daily interaction with patients, developing strong interpersonal skills is often vital to career success.
After successfully earning a dental hygiene degree from an accredited program, candidates for licensure must pass a written test known as the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. If successful, qualified candidates must then pass a clinical exam through an approved regional testing service. Finally, candidates must pass an open-book examination on the Wisconsin Statues and Administrative Code with a score of no less than an eighty-five percent. Once the appropriate forms and application fees are submitted, the Board will review the candidate’s application and determine whether or not to grant a credential.
Is Continuing Education Necessary?
In order to legally work in Wisconsin, dental hygienists must renew their license every two years. License renewal requires twelve completed continuing education hours in coursework related to the dental hygiene field. Of these, CPR and AED can account for no more than two credit hours, while no less than two credit hours must meet the infection control requirement. An application fee and registration form must also be submitted.
Although advanced degrees are not required to work in most dentist offices, some hygienists do pursue bachelor’s and even master’s degrees in dental hygiene. These advanced degrees may open up teaching and research positions as well as opportunities to work in more specialized settings.
What Are the Job Prospects for a Dental Hygienist?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the national mean pay for dental hygienists was $71,530 per year in 2013. At $62,420, Wisconsin hygienists may have earned less than the national average, but still earned almost $20,000 more than the average worker in the state. Importantly, national demand for qualified applicants was expected to rise thirty-three percent between 2012 and 2022. This rate is much higher than the expected growth for other jobs in the U.S. over that same time period.