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How Does a Dental Hygienist Differ From a Dentist?

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Dentistry and dental hygiene are health care professions focused on the care of teeth and gums. Both careers require additional training beyond high school, and both require a state license to legally work. However, dentists and dental hygienists differ significantly in many other areas, such as the length and complexity of training required, the salary they typically receive, the duties they usually perform and the level of authorization they are granted by the state dental board.

Dental Hygienist Requirements

Dental hygienist training programs usually last for 2 years, although bachelor's and master's degree programs in dental hygiene exist. Most dental hygienists are granted an associate degree when they complete their training in the field. A state-issued license is required to legally work as a dental hygienist. In most states, obtaining a license requires the completion of a dental hygiene training program, a written test and a clinical--or hands-on--test.

Dentist Requirements

Dentists generally complete a bachelor's degree before entering dental school. The bachelor's degree may be earned in a predental program, although this is not strictly necessary. However, to be accepted to most dental schools, the prospective student must complete several specific classes, mostly in the sciences. Students who want to enroll in a dental school must take the Dental Admissions Test, or DAT. Admission is primarily based on the results of this test and the student's GPA, although dental schools take other factors into account. Dental school lasts for 4 years; upon completion, the student is awarded the degree of doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.). Licensure requirements are similar to those of dental hygienists--proof that necessary training has been completed, a written exam and a clinical test. However, the examinations a dentist must complete to be licensed are much more rigorous than those a dental hygienist completes.

Work Environment

Working conditions are quite different for dentists and dental hygienists. Most dentists are small business owners operating a solo practice, with a small staff of employees. Dental hygienists are usually part of a dentist's staff and in many states must work with a supervising dentist. Dentists usually work 35 to 40 hours each week; many dental hygienists work part-time. Dentists usually earn two to three times as much money per hour as dental hygienists, but both positions are well-paid.

Dental hygienists' job duties are focused on preventative treatments, although they also perform a variety of related tasks. Most teeth-cleaning procedures, such as scaling and polishing, are performed by dental hygienists. They may also perform treatments to treat gum diseases such as gingivitis, educate patients about dental health, assist dentists during treatments and take X-ray images of patients' teeth for a dentist to interpret. Dental hygienists are not authorized to write prescriptions, but in some states they may administer anesthetics in the dental office.

Dentists diagnose and treat dental problems such as cavities and tooth fractures. They perform fillings, root canals and extractions. Dental specialists perform more extensive procedures such as replacing missing teeth with dental implants, extracting wisdom teeth, using braces to straighten teeth and performing corrective surgeries to the gums and jaw. Dentists may write prescriptions for certain medications, such as antibiotics, analgesics and prescription-only mouthwash. They may also administer both local and general anesthetics to patients in an office or hospital setting.

Although there are many differences between the two professions, dentistry and dental hygiene are complementary fields of work. Dentists and dental hygienists work closely together, each performing important tasks in their areas of expertise.

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