Work as a dental assistant can be a stepping-stone to a career as a dental hygienist. As a dental assistant, you could closely observe the work of a dental hygienist. You could then assess your personal aptitude for this work, discuss any questions with other hygienists, and enroll in a dental hygiene school where experience as a dental assistant would certainly be helpful.
You may be able to find part-time or summer work in high school as a dental assistant or clerical worker in a dentist's office. You also may be able to arrange to observe a dental hygienist working in a school or a dentist's office or visit an accredited dental hygiene school. The aptitude testing program required by most dental hygiene schools helps students assess their future abilities as dental hygienists.
Attend a summer dental camp offered by a college, university, or other provider. In such a camp, you'll learn about careers in dentistry, get to try out basic dental tools used by hygienists, and tour dental treatment facilities, among other activities. Contact schools in your area to learn what types of opportunities are available. Examples include the High School Pre-Summer Pre-Dental Camps, which are offered by Texas A&M University in Dallas, and the Dental Camp at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, California.
In clinical settings, hygienists help prevent gum diseases and cavities by removing deposits from teeth and applying sealants and fluoride to prevent tooth decay. They remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth; take X-rays and other diagnostic tests; place and remove temporary fillings; take health histories; remove sutures; polish amalgam restorations; and examine head, neck, and oral regions for disease.
Their tools include hand and rotary instruments to clean teeth, syringes with needles to administer local anesthetic (such as Novocain), teeth models to demonstrate home care procedures, and machines to take X-rays of the oral cavity that the dentist uses to detect signs of decay or oral disease.
A hygienist also provides nutritional counseling and screens patients for oral cancer. More extensive dental procedures are done by dentists. Other responsibilities depend on the employer.
Private dentists might require that the dental hygienist mix compounds for filling cavities, sterilize instruments, assist in surgical work, or even carry out clerical tasks such as making appointments and filling in insurance forms. The hygienist might well fill the duties of receptionist or office manager, functioning in many ways to assist the dentist in carrying out the day's schedule.
Although some of these tasks might also be done by a dental assistant, only the dental hygienist is licensed by the state to clean teeth. Licensed hygienists submit charts of each patient's teeth, noting possible decay or disease. The dentist studies these in making further diagnoses.
The school hygienist cleans and examines the teeth of students in a number of schools. The hygienist also gives classroom instruction on correct brushing and flossing of teeth, the importance of good dental care, and the effects of good nutrition. They keep dental records of students and notify parents of any need for further treatment.
Dental hygienists may be employed by local, state, or federal public health agencies. These hygienists carry out an educational program for adults and children, in public health clinics, schools, and other public facilities. A few dental hygienists may assist in research projects. For those with further education, teaching in a dental hygiene school may be possible.
Like all dental professionals, hygienists must be aware of federal, state, and local laws that govern hygiene practice. In particular, hygienists must know the types of infection control and protective gear that, by law, must be worn in the dental office to protect workers from infection. Dental hygienists, for example, must wear gloves, protective eyewear, and a mask during examinations. As with most health care workers, hygienists must be immunized against contagious diseases, such as hepatitis.