How To Become a Dental Hygienist
Becoming a dental hygienist typically involves earning a post-secondary degree, followed by state licensure and employment in a setting like a dentist's office. In general, you should expect to take the following steps:
Earn a Degree
Earning an undergraduate college degree accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is the first step to becoming a dental hygienist. You need to know how to identify oral conditions, such as gum disease, and have an understanding of basic anatomy, medical ethics, and laboratory processes.
An associate degree in dental hygiene or a related field is therefore the minimum education required to enter this field. Many community colleges and technical schools offer this credential, and students interested in pursuing it should take science and math subjects in high school.
"Dental hygiene schooling allows you to receive an associate degree or a bachelor's degree, depending on which college or university you attend," explains Whitney DiFoggio, a registered dental hygienist. According to DiFoggio, there is often no difference in salary between associate and bachelor's degree holders. However, she also notes that a "bachelor's degree is often recommended if a dental hygienist wants to work in a non-traditional setting, such as education, business, and research."
Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
Aspiring dental hygienists must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) within five years of graduating or within their first five attempts. The NBDHE is overseen by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE) and is meant to test a candidate's knowledge of human anatomy, clinical care, and public health. It may fulfill examination prerequisites for licensure in some states. In others, the NBDHE can fulfill part of the written test requirement. The JCNDE provides several helpful tips and study guides for those preparing to take this exam.
Obtain State Licensure
All 50 states require dental hygienists to be licensed. Specific licensure requirements vary by state, but in general, you must earn a CODA-accredited degree, pass the NBDHE, and clear a state board exam. In many cases, you must also pass a background check. Dental hygienist licenses are valid for a limited period, and you must take continuing education credits every renewal cycle to maintain your credential.
Where Can I Work as a Dental Hygienist?
Contrary to popular belief, dental hygienists do not only work in dental offices. In fact, these professionals have knowledge and skills that are applicable in a variety of settings. In addition to working in health care environments, like clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes, dental hygienists are employed in government organizations, the business world, research institutes, and education institutions. They can take on various clinical, administrative, and even corporate roles in these different industries. For instance, dental hygienists working in the business sector can serve as sales representatives for a particular oral hygiene product. On the other hand, those working in research or government may primarily be involved in exploring public health issues associated with gum or tooth diseases.
Important Skills for a Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienists have extensive training in matters of oral health as well as a unique set of physical skills. "Strong manual dexterity skills are required to work as a dental hygienist – since hygienists specialize in hands-on preventative services such as dental cleanings and periodontal soft tissue therapy," says DiFoggio. "In addition, bedside manners and communication skills are important in providing patient care and comfort."
Indeed, as health care professionals who interact regularly with patients, dental hygienists must also possess the character traits necessary to deliver care effectively. Below are some of the soft skills necessary in this profession:
Dental hygienists need to be able to clearly convey information about oral health. They often also need to explain a patient's condition to a licensed dentist or family members. To do so, they need to have a strong set of communication skills.
Many people get apprehensive about visiting the dentist. Dental hygienists need to have the ability to empathize with and understand a patient's concerns, so they can put their fears to rest.
Dental hygienists interact with many different types of people, including adults, young children, and seniors. They also work closely with other health care professionals, such as dental assistants and dentists. To be effective, they need to know how to interact effectively with others in a face-to-face setting.
Dental hygienists see patients with a range of oral health concerns. Some may have questions about everyday cleanliness, while others may want to know how to manage a chronic condition involving their teeth and gums. Problem-solving skills allow dental hygienists to come up with tailored treatment plans that help individuals meet their oral health goals.