Dental Assistants Vs. Dental Hygienists: What's the Difference?

While both dental assistants and dental hygienists work under the supervision of dentists, their roles in the dental office vary. Learn about the job duties of these positions, along with career data, such as employment outlook and salary projections.

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Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists: Career Differences

The differences between these two dental support positions center on the tasks they're expected to perform and their level of interaction with patients. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that a dental assistant provides direct aid to dentists, conducting office tasks and small, supervised jobs on patients' teeth, while a hygienist often works one-on-one with a patient, and doesn't have as much constant supervision.

Dental Assistant: Overview

Dental assistants perform both preparatory and break-down duties in the office. Some of these duties include disinfecting and laying out instruments for a dentist, obtaining patients' dental records, handing instruments to dentists during procedures and instructing patients on how to care for their teeth after they leave the dentist's office.

Dental assistants often prepare other materials for use by the dentist, such as x-ray machines, impression materials, anesthetics and cement. Other tasks may include office secretarial work, such as billing patients, making sure payments are received and ordering dental supplies. Depending on the state of employment, dental assistants may be allowed to do some additional advanced duties, including applying topical anesthetic, sealant applications, coronal polishing and fluoride applications.

Many states require that dental assistant be licensed, but these requirements vary. Some states have regulations that require aspiring dental assistants to complete one-year certificate or diploma programs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) dental assistants made median annual salaries of $35,390 as of May 2014. The BLS projected that these workers could expect an 18% rise in employment opportunities between 2014 and 2024.

Dental Hygienist: Overview

A dental hygienist performs tasks that are more advanced and independent. Their duties may include polishing patients' teeth, removing hard and soft deposits from teeth and using several tools to remove tartar, plaque and stains. Hygienists may also develop x-ray film.

Other tasks that hygienist may perform vary by state law. Education requirements for these professionals include earning an associate's degree in dental hygiene, and most programs take about three years to complete. Licensure requirements differ from one state to the next, but typically individuals must pass an accredited training program as well as clinical and written examinations.

The BLS projected a 19% growth rate in the dental hygiene field between 2014 and 2024, which is considerably faster compared to other career fields. As of May 2014, the median annual earnings of dental hygienists were $71,520, according to the BLS.

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