Although the two are commonly confused, dental assistants and dental hygienists have some remarkable differences in their roles.
Depending on the office where they are employed, how established and well staffed it is, you may find some overlap in background duties, but they are definitely two distinct careers.
The specialty of the dental hygienist is contained right within their title: hygiene – all of the hygienist’s attention is directed to either the health or cleanliness of their teeth, gums, and all of the mouth.
Unless the dental office is lacking its full staff, and must borrow a hygienist to temporarily fill the shoes of an assistant, generally you will not see a hygienist sitting chair side for reasons other than related to their specialty.
Dental hygienists do things such as preliminary assessments of the overall condition of the mouth, teeth and gums. Prior to cleaning they are likely the one who will take x-rays, exposing them, and reading them prior to the doctor viewing them.
When hygienists look at x-rays they check for signs of problems occurring below the gum line that may be benefited or eliminated by early treatment. A dental hygienist may catch a fine crack or other problems needing attention. He or she may be the first to detect signs of decay in teeth, and determine some to be just beginning and others as needing immediate treatment.
A very important role of the dental hygienist is to do a preliminary check for signs of oral cancer. They have been specially trained to watch for certain indications that may need further examination.
In addition to that, it is their job to record the general health history of the patient to ascertain if any special precautions are appropriate.
The hygienist then cleans your teeth, removing tartar and plaque from the teeth and below the gum line. They also apply cavity-fighting agents such as fluoride and administer other sealants to teeth.
A dental hygienist also takes an active role in educating the patient on carrying on good dental practices at home, explaining proper brushing and flossing techniques and advising them on other ways of keeping their teeth and gums healthy.
A dental hygienist may also begin the process of applying local anesthetics and/or nitrous oxide, in preparation of a procedure done by the dentist, and only under the doctor’s supervision.
So, the dental hygienist is specially educated and trained in the realm of physical health and preventive care of the teeth and mouth.
Although they work under the supervision of a dentist, and patients are examined after the cleaning and once the dentist reviews the dental hygienists findings, his or her job is not one geared to the great variety of duties of a dental assistant.
Your Dental Assistant’s Day
You may start your day by ensuring that all of the correct, sterilized trays of instruments are in proper order and ready for use. You may turn on certain dental equipment that needs to be ready for quick utilization.
Or, you may start your day by checking in deliveries from the lab and examining them to see if they look to be done according to specifications.
There may be some preparatory cleaning or polishing of certain dental appliances that will be delivered to the patient that day. It will be your job to see that those things are in order and ready upon that patient’s arrival. You will also help in minor adjustments at that time.
As an assistant you may be reviewing files of scheduled patients to see if any circumstances outside of the ordinary are calling for extra preparation. Many health conditions require that large doses of antibiotics be taken prior to any dental procedures, (even before cleanings) such as certain heart conditions, organ transplant recipients or those with joint replacements.
They make sure that any patients who are more susceptible to infection or illness have been appropriately prepared prior to being seen.
Depending on how the office is staffed, you may call the patient and lead them to be seated where they will see the doctor. It is the dental assistant’s job to find out how the patient is presently feeling, their pain or comfort level, and their emotional state, to some degree, because it is important to know if they are in a state of fear or anxiety about an impending procedure.
A well-trained dental assistant will make the dentist aware of the patient’s fears or concerns.
These professionals are trained to be helpful for those who are worried and can often make a great difference in how a dental procedure may be experienced or perceived.
This is not saying that an assistant is a licensed psychotherapist, of course, but you will be instructed in how to speak with and help calm the nervous ones, even if by giving them supportive explanations that may quell their fears, or allowing them to feel that you understand.
In time, you, as a dental assistant, will be the proverbial “right arm” of the dentist, anticipating the doctor’s next step and the needs that it brings.
You are the one who gets to close out much of the dentist’s interaction with the patient, leaving you to be the one who gives post procedure instruction and care.
You will make appropriate notes in their files and may very well be the person who will call them the next day, or whenever appropriate, to see that they are doing well.
As an assistant, you may have chosen a more specialized route, enabling you to find employment with a lab that makes dental appliances, utilizing your skills at a hospital, or assisting in an office of cosmetic dentistry. The world of dental assisting is one of great diversity.
You get to choose the level of your responsibility through the education and training that you select. The world of dental assisting offers great variety and you have the ability to determine which area you would be most happy in, and making it happen.
Making It Happen
Sure, people go around all of the time saying, “This is the perfect time for me to further my education and make a career change.” No, not so much, right?
But results-oriented people know that a little sacrifice in the now can make the future a much better place. There are groundbreaking opportunities available right now to make it easy to move in the direction of your choice.
Colleges are not exempt from the supply and demand theory. With so many people searching for education to enhance career versatility, there are many more colleges available to meet those needs. With all of the different colleges now, online or on campus, there is certainly one that you can take advantage of starting today.
Dental assisting is still in the middle of an unprecedented job growth-spurt – one day, those jobs will likely get filled and it will level out, but now is not too late for you.
Now is the perfect time to get started.
There are people who look out the window, see great weather, and go take advantage of it. Then there are people who just keep looking out the window until the rain comes, and then wish they had gotten out while it was beautiful.
Don’t be the one stuck looking out the window. Get out and enjoy! Take advantage of the opportunities today.