15 Surprising Things You Probably Don’t Know About Dental Hygienists

A career as a dental hygienist is a popular choice, and employment prospects for the future are expected to be excellent. Most of us are aware… Simi - June 13, 2018

A career as a dental hygienist is a popular choice, and employment prospects for the future are expected to be excellent. Most of us are aware that to care for our teeth we need to floss, brush and see a dental hygienist on a regular basis. Maintaining oral health can have a dramatic effect on overall health and dental hygienists have a large role to play in educating patients about preventative care and much more.

To become a dental hygienist, the first step is to enroll in an accredited dental hygiene program for formal education. The road from there can be arduous, involving academic studies, clinical experience, passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and then getting a state license to practice dental hygiene.

The scope of work and services dental hygienists are legally allowed to deliver vary according to the rules of the state in which they work. Many states are currently working on increasing the scope of work to help with the current crisis in oral health, especially in underserved populations. Dental hygienists are already allowed to work without a dentist’s assignment in a number of states.

Dental hygienists interact with many different people on a daily basis. Those who recognize the importance of oral health and love helping others will probably be passionate about the profession. They are likely to go ‘above and beyond’ when it comes to their patients. The role of the dental hygienist has evolved a great deal over the years. Many people do not understand its full scope. For those who would like to know more, here are some facts you probably don’t know about dental hygienists and the important role they play.

1. They are highly educated

To work as a dental hygienist, you must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school. Academic programs for dental hygienists are offered at technical colleges, community colleges, dental schools or universities. Most community college programs take at least two years, and graduates receive associate degrees. This associate degree allows them to take examinations to become licensed. University-based dental hygiene programs offer bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. These require more years of study. Those who want to go into research or teaching, clinical practice in schools or public health programs may need additional degrees.

The admission requirements for a program vary, depending on the dental hygiene school.  High school subjects such as biology, psychology, chemistry, and mathematics are beneficial. Most programs prefer applicants to have completed at least a year of college. Some degree programs want applicants to complete two years of college before they enroll in a dental hygiene program.

The dental hygiene education programs offer clinical education. Students have supervised patient care experiences. Programs may also include courses in liberal arts, basic sciences, and clinical sciences. Once the dental hygiene program is completed, students may choose to do additional training in areas such as education, marketing, public health, basic sciences and business administration.

No matter what the degree level, the same board exams are taken to prove competency and gain a license to practice. Then there are the examinations specific to a geographic location with every state having its own exam. Only graduates of commission-accredited dental hygiene education programs are eligible for licenses in most states. Exams are both written and practical. Once they have received their licenses, dental hygienists are able to use “R.D.H” after their names. This signifies the state’s recognition that they are Registered Dental Hygienists.  

2. The career is tough on their bodies

Dental hygienists are constantly straining their shoulders, backs, and necks. They try to use the proper equipment and ergonomics to reduce the strain, but physical stress can still occur over time. While patients recline in ergonomically designed, expensive chairs while receiving treatment, hygienists are often hunched over in awkward positions to do their jobs. Ergonomic issues are causing some hygienists to leave the profession. The physical demands may cause injuries or conditions that spiral out of control.

The work is so physically demanding because they are required to stand for long hours and use very precise, repetitive movements. Constantly trying to see into a patient’s mouth and find the right position for a precise blade angle can result in neck, shoulder and back pain. Lower back pain can result from stressed muscles due to poor posture. Carpal tunnel syndrome can occur due to repetitive motion. Many dental hygienists suffer from hand and wrist pain. Proper positioning of a patient and use of ultrasonic rather than manual tools can help to prevent this.

Repetitive stress injuries have the potential of leading to short-term and long-term disabilities. Some dental hygienists are lucky enough not to experience pain. Others say they have become used to the pain which is a problem because the pain in the body is a signal to take action. Many times, dental hygienists ignore their own comfort in attending to their patients’ welfare, but this is counterproductive in the long run.

Some hygienists invest in their own equipment to reduce body stress and allow them to practice more comfortably. An ergonomic chair with arms, larger-handled instruments or magnification loupes can all make a difference. What can also help to prevent shoulder and back muscles from getting stiff and sore is to fit some stretches into the day. If the pain does not go away, it may be necessary to receive physical therapy.

3. They treat more than just teeth

Dental hygienists manage all kinds of oral health needs. They can use X-rays, remove plaque and calculus, and apply preventative materials, like fluorides and sealants. They teach patients about oral hygiene and the importance of maintaining their oral health by teaching them how to floss, brush and even give nutritional counseling. They play a key role in performing preventative services. They also make impressions of patients’ teeth and perform documentation and office management activities.

What happens in the mouth is connected to what happens in the whole body. This is why dental hygienists need to know about far more than just what goes on in the mouth. They have to know about issues that affect the rest of the body and also have to be up to date on the effects of certain medications.  They help with oral cancer screening and smoking cessation.

Research has shown many links between periodontal disease and other systemic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and stroke. Periodontal disease is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. Treating gum disease may help to prevent various other diseases. The link between gum disease and other chronic health conditions appears to be inflammation. When inflammatory substances build up in the blood, they can worsen chronic health conditions.

In their training, dental hygienists study histology, embryology, microbiology and various aspects of human biology, down to the mechanisms of disease and the microscopic makeup of tissues.  They study oral pathology and organic chemistry. They are equipped with what they have studied and then further equipped by their clinical experience. They are able to examine the teeth and gums for cavities and have to be familiar with all kinds of dental procedures. They are also able to use a range of equipment, from dental mirrors and picks to high tech equipment, like X-ray machines.

4. They are constantly battling against the clock

What dental hygienists have to do during every appointment is quite daunting. They go over a patient’s health history, take their vitals, discuss concerns, and take several different measures to monitor gum health such as gum recession, tooth mobility, pocket depths and bleeding points. They screen for oral cancer and other abnormalities, clean the teeth, polish the teeth, educate on the status of gum health and answer questions. They also have to write chart notes and disinfect the room for the next patient. All of this has to happen within a certain time frame.

It’s no wonder that although they do their best to stay on time, it is not always possible. Unforeseen circumstances can put them behind schedule such as when a patient shows up late. Patients may also need more treatment than expected. Perhaps they have a toothache that requires extra x-rays or has more deposits than normal due to lack of home care.

Dental hygienists can’t just leave out certain things to get the treatment done on time because this could affect the health of a patient. Say, for instance, cancer screening was left out because a patient was late and it was only caught six months later. Each patient has to receive thorough and comprehensive treatment, despite the fact that the next patient is usually waiting before the previous patient has been treated.

This is why dental hygienists may work through lunch hours and stay late. Working against the clock is not as easy as it may seem. No matter how much they try to stay on schedule, sometimes it is just not possible. They often go to work early to start preparing and reviewing patient’s charts. The work is very detailed, and they want to make sure that when they start something, they finish it, even if it means sacrificing some personal time.    

5. They make recommendations based on patients’ needs

The recommendations dental hygienists make are based on the patient’s best interests.  This may include fluoride treatments, X-rays, recommendations about what toothbrush to use and much more. They share with patients the value of disease prevention, starting with the mouth and going beyond to the whole body.

They provide treatment to people of all ages and backgrounds. Some schools offer courses that focus on the special needs of elderly or disabled people. Oral hygiene changes with age because of the condition of the teeth and gums changes. Dental hygienists are usually faced with a wide range of patients of all ages. They need to know how to deal with them all, whether it’s a middle-aged woman with a fear of needles or a hyperactive child.

They understand that one method does not work for every patient. They cannot save every tooth, but they need to dig deep and figure out what is most effective for each person. This requires good listening skills. A way to make sure they have heard a patient correctly is to repeat back to the patient what has been said. They also ask questions that require patients to think and respond. This makes the patient part of a conversation and thus part of good decisions about a recommended treatment plan.

Dental hygienists have to learn how to find the balance between professionalism and friendliness. They can come across as too authoritative if they tell patients they need to improve their diets and do all kinds of other things without exercising compassion and understanding. Patients aren’t intimidated by the advice if it is offered in a calm, and humble way. They have to be guided patiently through the process of understanding, accepting and completing treatment.

6. They want the patient’s experience to be as stress-free and comfortable as possible

Treating clients with high anxiety about dentists is a common occurrence. What causes such anxiety about dental treatment? One of the primary fears is the loss of control. Patients have to lean back in a vulnerable position and submit themselves to procedures they would rather not be having. They might have been traumatized by the previous experience, and the anxiety can be crippling. Another big fear is a fear of pain.  Fear of embarrassment about their dental health practices is another common issue that can cause defensiveness. They don’t want to be lectured about how they have neglected their dental hygiene.

Dental hygienists do whatever they can to make the experience comfortable. This may include providing numbing relief or pillows. One of the most important ways of making a patient feel comfortable is communication. Dental hygienists describe what they’re doing, ask what the patient is thinking and feeling as well as what should be done at home. They reassure patients that they will do everything possible to make the experience pain free and that they have the right tools at hand to do this.

If a patient is particularly anxious, they must take the time to guide them through the procedure until the job is done. They need to reassure and encourage them. This helps patients to gain trust in the dental hygienist and face future treatment with less anxiety and fear.

Fear is often fueled by facing the unknown and by the picture painted of dental treatment in the media. For dental-phobic patients, it is often the perception that they are going to experience pain that causes the fear. The truth is the process is not as painful as it once was and their fears can be dispelled. Dental hygienists find ways to make a visit less intimidating and to reassure patients that the experience will be relatively pain-free.

7. Their patients are more than just their patients

Many dental hygienists find the profession rewarding because of the patients. This can provide compensation for the daily wear and tear on their muscles, the need to keep studying and the battle against time. They may end up thinking about the wellbeing of patients long after they’ve gone home. They will often treat the same client base for many years and develop relationships built on trust.

Dental hygienists usually enjoy the one-on-one experience with patients, meeting people from many walks of life that they may never have met otherwise. They often hear interesting stories, and their patients enrich their lives on a daily basis. When their patients are more than just patients, both parties may look forward to seeing one another again, rather than dreading an appointment.

Dental hygienists are often driven by the desire to help others, and this profession gives them a chance to change lives for the better. They have a passion for their profession that transforms what they do. They are given a chance to treat people with empathy, give them excellent advice and have an impact on their health and wellbeing. A patient who has a great relationship with a dental hygienist is far more likely to go for regular checkups.

Relationships with patients may include small gestures like sending cards to sick patients or those who have lost loved ones, remembering birthdays and remembering special events in their lives. This builds a bond that goes beyond being there just for their dental problems. A patient may even follow a dental hygienist who takes a new job because of the level of trust and mutual respect that has developed over time.   

8. They continue their education

Dental hygienists need to take continuing education credits to keep their licenses valid. Apart from this, education never stops because new research and new protocols are constantly emerging. They need to stay current so that they can serve their patients to the best of their ability. The field of dental hygiene is more expansive than many people realize.

Becoming a practicing dental hygienist can take less than four years. However, for those who want to advance their careers, more studying is required. Dental hygienists can’t afford to become complacent about learning if they want to advance their careers. They need to work toward improving their level of education, whether this is getting a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.

There are such a wide variety of options for career advancement it can be tricky to determine which area to pursue. Understanding how much time and energy they need to invest and what opportunities they want to pursue can help with selection.  Further degrees may open up doors for conducting research, teaching dental hygienic at a community college or working for a public health organization. It may even involve performing a leadership role in a government department related to dentistry.

Dental hygienists are in high demand. However, many people pursue entry-level dental hygiene careers. There are often more job openings in positions that require further education. Those with further education are permitted to perform more functions. These expanded functions are becoming more important due to a lack of dentists and the need for preventative dentistry. They need to perform at the top of the level they are trained for and work at training further if they are serious about career advancement.

9. They are part of a healthcare team

A projected shortage of dentists makes the role of a dental hygienist all the more important. Minnesota and Maine have already developed new workforce models that use dental hygienists to provide expanded services if they are educated to do them. As a result of their academic education and clinical training, dental hygienists are highly skilled and well respected as members of the oral health care team.

Within a dental practice, there is a team consisting of the dentist and other colleagues within the office. It is within this setting that a client’s initial treatment plan is created and carried out. The treatment aspect of dental hygiene may be carried out by the dental practitioner, but close collaboration with other colleagues is necessary to establish a complete oral care solution for the patient.

A dental hygienist also has to collaborate with a network of healthcare professionals working outside of the general dental setting. If a lesion is found in the oral cavity of an individual, a referral would need to be made to an oral pathologist for further investigation. Other collaborations may be required with medical specialists such as cardiologists. A patient may even be referred to a massage therapist to assist with joint dysfunction, such as discomfort where the lower jaw is hinged to the skull.

The success of preventative dentistry has reduced the incidence of oral disease. Senior citizens are retaining their teeth for longer and are more aware of how important regular dental care is to their overall health. With an emphasis on preventative health, more dental hygienists will be needed to meet the increasing demand for their services.

10. They can work in a wide variety of settings

Dental hygienists can work in a wide variety of settings, including public health, private dental practices, research teams, educational facilities and community institutions. They are in demand in general dental practices and specialty practices such as pediatric dentistry. They are also in demand in public health services where oral health education is important.

Different levels of education and experience equip them to work in different situations. They may get involved in teaching dental hygiene students in dental hygiene education programs. They may decide to go into research and work as part of a research team. This involves learning how to manage and coordinate clinical trials. They may even choose to work for companies that market dental-related equipment and materials.

Those who work in public health may do oral health screening in elementary schools, promote and educate people about oral health and render preventative dental hygiene services. Dental hygienists who want to make a difference across a community rather than strictly giving individual care are often drawn to public health dentistry. Educational requirements to go into public health vary, with most posts requiring the minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

Many of those who experience difficulty with physical problems in private practice turn to education, where their clinical expertise is valued. When an instructor is passionate about a profession, it can energize learners and keeps them engaged in the learning process. The ability to guide and coach students to being the best hygienists they can be is a great responsibility. Dental hygiene educators have the opportunity to shape the future of the profession. Educational requirements vary for educators with some having very strict requirements and others only requiring a bachelor’s degree.  

11. They need these soft skills

Intelligence is required to tackle the study courses required for being a dental hygienist, especially because a number of them are heavy on science. They test the ability to think critically, and problem solve. Even once dental hygienists have qualified, they must continue to study and keep up to date with new cutting-edge technologies. They never stop learning and need to be pro-active enough to recognize areas of concern that go beyond addressing the periodontal disease.

Strong communication skills are important when dealing with patients. This is one skill that can go a long way to help reassure patients when they are feeling anxious or uncomfortable. Compassion and flexibility are also required when it comes to handling a constant stream of patients, day after day.

Mastering the practical skills takes physical strength, endurance, and manual dexterity. A fair amount of physical stamina is required for the job because much time is spent on the feet and bending over patients. The ability to work well under pressure is essential, and those who have difficulty working in close proximity to others may struggle in this profession.

The ability to focus in a fast-paced environment and act as a team player is important. A professional attitude is expected in interactions as well as being well-presented and courteous. Without the ability to pay attention to detail, several aspects of the job become difficult.  When doing the cleaning, it is necessary to pay attention to every little stain. When performing examinations, paying attention makes noticing potential health problems that would otherwise go unnoticed possible and in extreme cases, could even save someone’s life.

12. Job flexibility is possible

The flexibility of the career attracts dental hygienists. They can work full-time, part-time, double time and everything in between. This enables them to find a balance between career and lifestyle and to work longer hours when they can. It gives mothers an opportunity to have an important career and stay involved in their children’s busy schedules by working three days a week.

Dental hygienists can also be self-employed. When they are self-employed professionals, this provides flexibility because they are in control of their own work schedules. They can work as many or as few hours as they want to. They can also work at more than one dental office. Self-employment usually comes with the potential to make more profit than being employed by someone else.

Even as regular employees, it is still possible to enjoy flexible work schedules. Some of them work a few hours every day or two to three days a week and spend the rest of their time with their families. There may even be an opportunity to work evenings and weekends, rather than regular work hours. Nationally, only about half of dental hygienists work on a regular nine to five basis.

Some dentists do not work every day. If the dental hygienist needs to work full-time hours, going to work for more than one dentist is an option. Working with several dentists on a part-time basis can, in essence, create a full-time job. This is a question of using their hours to create a suitable schedule and still make enough money. Almost a quarter of hygienists work in two offices, showing further proof of how flexible this career can be for those who need to work around personal commitments.  

13. They may need to educate others about what they can do

There are many people who do not understand what the role of a dental hygienist encompasses. Receptionists, office managers, patients and even some dentists may have to be educated. They do not mean to offend when they misunderstand the scope of the job, but they do need to be informed. Informing people requires patience, showing practical skills and demonstrating academic knowledge.

It is not uncommon for dental hygienists to end up in practices where the periodontal infection is still being treated with the same strategies and technology that was being used five or ten years ago. Many things have changed, and better tools, better science, and knowledge about the serious health risks of the oral-systemic link have made the job of the dental hygienist much more comprehensive. A dental hygienist can have an important role in helping to achieve higher acceptance from patients for periodontal procedures and incorporate new technology to serve patients better. When the role of the dental hygienist is maximized, the whole practice can benefit.

The role of hygienists has evolved greatly over time, but one component that has not changed that much is that they have been required to work under the supervision or assignment of a dentist. Currently, they work under varying levels of supervision as determined by the licensing state. Based on previous research, it is evident that dental students and dental hygiene students are not fully aware of each other’s scope of access.

The U.S. is currently experiencing an oral health care crisis, and many different strategies have been suggested to cope with it. Dental hygienists can play an important role in preventative oral care which offers one solution for addressing the crisis in specific populations. A number of states have already adopted policies that allow dental hygienists to give oral health care to underserved populations. They can do this without a dentist’s assignment.

14. They have to deal with bad teeth and bad breath

It’s no secret that dental hygienists are exposed to seeing some horrible sights and smelling odors that would make most people want to run away. The smell of infection is far from appealing, not to mention rotting food that has to be extracted from where it is lodged between the teeth and gums. Cleaning teeth entail spending all day looking into patients’ mouths.

Hygienists treat some patients with decaying teeth and bad breath. The stench of halitosis or bad breath can be quite overwhelming. Individuals with weak stomachs may want to gag which could upset a patient. They also deal with saliva. If a patient sneezes, coughs or gags, saliva droplets that may carry the disease are released into the atmosphere. Hygienists may also be exposed to blood and vomit.

Halitosis affects about a quarter of the population, so hygienists are exposed to this on a daily basis, and yet they manage to face patients with a smile. Anaerobic bacteria produce volatile sulfur compounds that are the primary cause of halitosis in most cases and cause the ‘rotten egg’ smell. Hygienists play a key role in identifying halitosis and trying to treat and prevent it. Some patients have excellent dental hygiene and still experience bad breath. This is where hygienists have to go outside of traditional thinking and figure out the root of the problem.

Dental hygienists have to have a sense of purpose to be able to overcome the less appealing aspects of the job such as foul smells. When their goal is to prevent disease, they consider what they have to experience worth it for the health of the patient. Bacteria in the mouth have been linked to chronic inflammation which in turn is linked to certain cancers, low birth weight, pre-term babies, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. The health problems of patients are important to them, and they want to do what they can to prevent them.  

15. They work with the public on what the public doesn’t like

Dental hygienists are constantly working with the public which can be hard. To add to this struggle, people generally do not like having dental work done. Dental hygienists have to work hard to change their perceptions. Some patients may even take their fear out on the hygienist because they feel vulnerable and anxious.

Patients can be difficult in many different ways. Some are resistant to care, and others may be combative or insulting because they are in pain. Patients may even try manipulating by using guilt or threats. They may want an inappropriate procedure or a drug they don’t need. When patients are belligerent, engaging in conflict is a bad idea.

 Dental hygienists have to learn how to navigate objections and negative situations. Many people do not want to be told what to do. The dental hygienist has to learn how to speak to patients in a way that makes them realize the benefits of good oral care. They may ask their patients to consider or evaluate suggestions rather than saying they must or should do something. They may ask questions related to any objections, leading patients forward slowly to make their own conclusions.

Dealing with difficult patients is part of the job. It can be challenging, but it also brings out the creativity in finding ways to help these difficult patients and make a positive impact on their lives. These patients need extra help to keep their visits successful and prevent jeopardizing all the work spent to help other patients have positive experiences. Sometimes the appointments for difficult patients can be scheduled for specific times that may be slower or will minimize exposure to other patients. A calm, reassuring tone will often alleviate tense situations.