Hygienist cleaning patient's teeth.
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What role does the dental hygienist play in a dental practice? You will find dental hygienists in many different types of dental practices. However, in general dentistry and many specialized dentistry offices, dental hygienists have vital roles in the care of patients. In many cases, the dental hygienist is the first and last person the patient interacts with inside the treatment room. This is because dental hygienists work closely with patients, making them an essential part of every dental practice.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

What does a dental hygienist do? This is a common question because the role of a dental hygienist vs. dentist may not always seem clear. A dental hygienist works in collaboration with a general dentist or a specialist to provide patient care. The majority of the services that dental hygienists provide are focused on preventative care. For example, whenever you visit your dentist for a routine cleaning and checkup, a dental hygienist will clean your teeth, remove plaque and tartar, do a preliminary examination, and conduct imaging as needed. A hygienist can also help the dentist with charting and developing patient treatment plans.

Skills of a Dental Hygienist

Hygienists go through specialized training to develop dental hygienist skills and become qualified to work with patients. The skills of a dental hygienist are put to work daily in dental practices. There is a long list of essential dental hygienist skills. Still, some of the most important include skilled hands, patience, attention to detail, education, and good eyesight.

  • Skilled hands – The essential tools that a dental hygienist uses are their hands. Capable hands are necessary for a dental hygienist. A dental hygienist's work includes a) Removing plaque and tartar; b) Applying preventative materials to teeth; c) Scaling and root planing for the treatment of gum disease; d) Basic cleaning tasks like scrubbing teeth and flossing.
    • All of the tasks outlined above require skilled hands for successful treatment and patient comfort. Skilled hands are required for successful treatment. For example, an essential part of the work dental hygienists do is removing plaque and tartar. Plaque and tartar can build up on your teeth and lead to decay and gum disease. The process of removing plaque and tartar – especially near the gum line – requires skilled hands. Suppose the hygienist misses plaque or tartar buildup on your teeth. In that case, it leaves you at risk of developing oral problems in the future.
    • Skilled hands are also required for patient comfort. The instruments that a dental hygienist uses to remove plaque and tartar are sharp. Tartar removal involves using a dental tool that is strong enough to scrape the hard substance off of your teeth. Tartar often accumulates near your gums. The dental hygienist must have skilled hands to remove tartar at your gum line without causing pain or discomfort. It is important to note that you will experience some discomfort during routine dental appointments if you have gum disease. Gingivitis and periodontitis can cause your gums to be sensitive to regular oral care tasks like brushing and flossing. A dental hygienist with skilled hands can minimize your pain. Still, some level of discomfort will remain until your gum disease is treated.
  • Patience – Patience is one of the most critical skills of a dental hygienist. Every person needs routine dental care. This means that dental hygienists will encounter people from all walks of life. Some people are afraid of the dentist and require extra time to go through the cleaning and examination process. Some people get behind on routine dental care and need extra attention to get their oral health back on track. Others are prone to poor oral health because of lifestyle or genetic factors and always seem to have oral problems at routine dental appointments. A dental hygienist must have patience because every person who comes in for an appointment is an individual and will have unique needs.
  • Attention to Detail – Attention to detail is an essential skill for dental hygienists to develop. The area that dental hygienists work on is small. The issues that can cause severe problems for patients are even more minor. For example, failing to remove a small area of tartar can cause a patient to develop gum disease. Dental hygienists must pay close attention to detail to provide patients with the highest level of care.
  • Pedagogic – Dental hygienists need to possess academic skills. When a dental hygienist has academic skills, it simply means that the dental hygienist is a good teacher. A big part of what dental hygienists do is teach patients about proper oral care. For example, a dental hygienist may need to demonstrate appropriate flossing and brushing to a patient who shows poor oral hygiene.
  • Good Eyesight – Dental hygienists need good eyesight to see the detail inside patients' mouths. Plaque, tartar, signs of decay, and other issues can be challenging to see without a sharp eye.
  • Dental Hygienist Responsibilities Dental hygienist responsibilities are all centered around patient care. Dental hygienist roles and responsibilities include providing oral health advice, preventing dental decay, offering dieting advice, and staying updated on new practices and methods.
  • Oral Health Advice – Dental hygienists offer oral health advice to patients during routine dental care appointments. Dental hygienists understand the signs of poor oral care and provide patients with information about changes to improve their overall oral health.
  • Prevent Dental Decay – Dental hygienists help prevent dental decay by providing patients with deep cleanings. In addition, hygienists remove plaque and tartar buildup to help prevent erosion and the development of gum disease in the future.
  • Dieting Advice – Dental hygienists are trained to understand the relationship between diet and oral problems. A hygienist can provide dieting advice designed to maximize oral health and prevent decay and gum disease issues.
  • Stay Updated on New Practices – Continuing education is an essential responsibility for dental hygienists. Each year, dental hygienists must complete a certain number of continuing education hours to stay updated on new practices.

What are the Procedures that a Dental Hygienist Performs?

The majority of dental hygienist procedures are centered around protecting your oral health. The main focus of the dental hygienist's role is to help prevent oral health issues like decay, gum disease, and infection. A dental hygienist's procedures can include plaque removal, scaling, polishing, taking and developing dental x-rays, and applying fluoride.

  1. Plaque Removal – Plaque is a substance that can build up on your teeth and cause them to look dull and dirty. Over time, plaque will harden into tartar and put you at risk for decay and gum disease. Dental hygienists are trained to remove plaque from your teeth to protect them from decay and prevent the development of tartar.
  2. Scaling – Scaling is the process of removing tartar from the gum line of your teeth. If you suffer from gingivitis or periodontitis, scaling is often part of treating and reversing gum disease.
  3. Polishing – Polishing is one of the procedures that dental hygienists commonly perform. Polishing involves using a polishing tool on your teeth once the plaque and tartar are removed. This step in the cleaning process is designed to get your teeth looking as white and shiny as possible.
  4. Dental X-Rays – Dental x-rays are a standard part of preventative dental care. Dental hygienists are trained to take and develop dental x-rays for patients.
  5. Apply Fluoride – Fluoride is a mineral that can be applied to teeth to help protect against cavities. Dental hygienists can apply topical fluoride as part of the routine and preventative dental appointments.

Dental Hygienist vs. General Dentist 

Dental hygienists play a crucial role in dental practices. However, patients do not always understand the functions of a dental hygienist vs. a general dentist. A simple way to look at the differences is to understand the primary focus of each dental professional. Dental hygienists focus primarily on providing information and procedures relating to the prevention of oral problems. Dentists can also provide services related to prevention but spend much of their time evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients who already have some oral problem.

Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant

Dental assistant vs. dental hygienist is another area of confusion for many patients. Of the two, dental hygienists have more training and are qualified to provide patient care. Dental hygienists must complete a training program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. In the United States, every state requires that dental hygienists go through specialized training before working in a dental office. The requirements for a dental assistant are not as rigorous, and, in some places, a dental assistant can receive on-the-job training. A dental assistant can be an essential part of a dental practice by getting the procedure room ready between patients, providing support services for the hygienist or dentist, and getting patients where they need to be inside the office.

Find the Best Dental Hygienist Near You

Why see a dental hygienist? The answer to that question is clear – dental hygienists are there to help you prevent oral problems from occurring. You can avoid painful dental problems when you include seeing a dental hygienist in your overall oral care routine. Dental hygienists work as part of a team led by a dentist. To find the best dental hygienist near you, you need to start by finding a dentist. The Smile Generation has a tool to help you find a dentist and hygienist to meet your oral care needs. You can use the Find a Dentist tool to help you find a dentist near you who offers the services you need.