Careers in dental assisting and dental hygiene involve working alongside dentists to provide direct, hands-on patient care while also overseeing many of the important day-to-day functions of dental offices. They are a critical bridge between patients and dentists.
Dental hygienists are specially trained to perform important dental care procedures, including removing plaque and tartar, applying sealants and fluoride, taking and developing x-rays, tracking treatment plans and providing oral hygiene advice to patients, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov).
The BLS also reports that dental assistants tend to handle more of the administrative tasks of dental offices -- maintaining patient files, processing x-rays, scheduling patient appointments and billing. However, they also perform some patient care duties, including sterilizing and preparing instruments, processing x-rays and labs, assisting dentists during procedures, and generally making sure patients are comfortable.
Dental hygiene and assisting job prospects
Because of numerous factors affecting the dental industry -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a rapidly growing senior population, increasing awareness of preventive care and oral hygiene, and improving technology -- the BLS projects dental hygienist and dental assistant careers are expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations between 2012 and 2022.
Dental assistant careers are projected to grow 25 percent during that time, due to dentists relying more on these professionals to handle daily tasks so they can see more patients. Some practices may hire assistants with no formal training, although certificate and degree programs exist for these professions.
Meanwhile, dentists will increasingly rely on dental hygienists to perform routine care -- cleanings, x-rays, etc. -- as they increasingly perform specialized procedures. Dental hygienist jobs are projected to grow 33 percent from 2012 to 2022. They are required to have specialized training due to the amount of patient care they provide, with the minimum being an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Licensure is required in all states.
Dental assisting and hygiene salaries
According to the BLS, the national median hourly wage for dental assistants in May 2013 was $16.78, and the median annual wage was $34,900. Dental hygienists tend to earn more because of their advanced training and the services they provide. In May 2013, the national median hourly wage was $34.19, and the median annual wage was $71,110. A large percentage (one-third to one-half) of these professionals work part time.
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Educational attainment for dental assisting and hygiene
Those currently employed as dental hygienists and dental assistants have achieved the following educational attainment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net:
- Associate degree: 79 percent
- Bachelor's degree: 21 percent
- Post-baccaulaureate certificate: 1 percent
- Post-secondary certificate: 63 percent
- Associate degree: 12 percent
- High school diploma or equivalent: 9 percent
There are more than 250 dental-assisting training programs and 300 hygienist programs accredited by the American Dental Association in the U.S. If you'd like to learn more about either of these careers, explore the programs available through this site.
Dental Assistants, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319091.htm
Dental Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm
Dental Hygienists, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292021.htm
Dental Hygienists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm
Summary Report for Dental Assistants, O*Net OnLine, U.S. Department of Labor, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9091.00
Summary Report for Dental Hygienists, O*Net OnLine, U.S. Department of Labor, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2021.00
"What can a career in Dental Hygiene offer you?," American Dental Association (ADA), accessed June 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/home-ada/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist