Big Shoes to Fill
As a new patient of a dental office, you’re destined to meet new friendly faces during your visits. From the front desk to the patient room, you’ll even notice that some roles overlap in order to maintain a productive flow within the office’s four walls. Since this overlap exists, we find some patients wondering exactly which professional is sitting chairside with them. Perhaps two of the most commonly confused roles in our industry are dental assistants and dental hygienists. It can be helpful to understand their contrast because each professional will set the stage for different experiences. Essentially, you’ll want to know what to expect from each professional. Don’t worry! We’ll let you know the difference between these two vital positions. Spoiler alert: both are big shoes to fill!
Cut from the Same Cloth
When it comes to a dental assistant and dental hygienist, you could say that they are cut from the same cloth. In this way, they both are in the dental industry and function as support roles in the office to improve workflow. You can expect a hygienist to perform some tasks that are generally assigned to a dental assistant and vice versa.
For example, you may notice a hygienist preparing and sterilizing instruments, which is often associated with a dental assistant’s duties. You may also think of a hygienist as the individual that cleans teeth. However, some dental assistants with the proper qualifications can polish teeth. Understanding the distinction often lies in how much time they actually spend in your mouth or performing certain tasks. Also, keep in mind that every dental office is different when it comes to the specific duties carried out. Some dental hygienists may not prepare or sterilize equipment in some environments. It truly comes down to the needs of the dental office.
Education Behind the Roles
At the root, a dental assistant and a dental hygienist reach different educational milestones within their career. A dental assistant only requires formal education in some states, Arizona excluded. Of course, anyone can be better off with additional education, but experience can go a long way for a successful career as well. For dental hygienists, further education is an absolute must. Dental hygienists hold an associate’s degree through a program that will last anywhere from 2 – 4 years. Almost all states require that the programs be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation and that students pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination in order to become licensed. Since a dental hygienist has extensive schooling, they’ll be the ones you can count on to be working in your mouth without the dentist’s direct guidance.
Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist at Work
Imagine that you are called back to the room for your appointment. The caring professional that takes you to the patient room first and foremost is more than likely the dental assistant. They’ll greet you initially and often act as a guide through your appointment. The dental assistant is the one who also works alongside the dentist or dental hygienist during dental procedures. You can then count on the dental hygienist to take the lead in hygiene-based appointments that involve cleaning your teeth. As part of this distinction, you won’t catch a dental hygienist in your room during your filling or crown appointment. You’ll get to hang out with them at your next cleaning appointment instead!
While some dental assistants can polish teeth as we mentioned, the dental hygienist is one professional that will spend a lot more time in your mouth. The dental hygienist can perform routine cleanings and apply anesthetics. Dental hygienists work directly with the patient, unlike the dental assistant who is supervised by the dentist. Even though dental assistants are alone with the patient at times, they will generally regroup with the dentist and dental hygienist at some point during the appointment.
Since we only get you for the duration of your appointment, we know that you might not pick up on all these cues. If you’re still unsure about who is taking care of you at the time, feel free to ask! If there is any doubt, professionals in this field would love to let you know what they do and how the appointment will go. As for us, we deeply appreciate all dental professionals who contribute to the daily rhythms of our office. All roles are vital in helping a patient lead a healthier life.