When you go to the dentist, usually the first person you see is the dental hygienist. Just as there are doctors and nurses in hospitals, in dental practices you have dentists and dental hygienists. Understanding what each person does can help you feel more comfortable during your next appointment. We take a look at the difference between the dentist and the dental hygienist and what you should expect from both.

What is a Dentist?
A dentist is a physician whose practice is in the field of dentistry. This involves the mouth, teeth, gums and related areas. Some studies have shown that diseases relating to the teeth and gums can be indicative or indicators of some health issues. The health of the mouth is essential to the general overall health of the body and a dentist will encourage and assist their patients in maintaining a healthy mouth by regular cleaning and check-ups.

What does a Dentist do?
While a dental hygienist might make note of an issue in your mouth and point it out to a dentist or periodontist, he or she won’t diagnose the problem. That job is left to dentists, who then come up with a plan for prioritizing treatment and guiding the patient to achieving their oral health goals. Another big difference between dentists and hygienists is specialization. While a dental hygienist might work in a periodontist’s practice, he or she most likely doesn’t consider him or herself a periodontal hygienist. Some dentists receive additional training after dental school that allows them to specialize and provide care for certain conditions to patients. Periodontists, who focus on treating gum disease and other concerns of the gums, are just one example of dental specialists. Other examples include endodontists, who treat nerve related issues, orthodontists, who correct people’s crooked teeth and misaligned bites, and oral and maxillofacial surgeons, who are qualified to perform surgeries in the mouth.

Dental Hygienists
What is a Dental Hygienist?
A dental hygienist is an oral health professional who is responsible for preventing and treating oral diseases. Dental hygienists perform much of their work independently, with only general supervision from a licensed dentist. Dental hygienists are an important part of dentist-led teams. Their work removes a considerable burden from the dentist, freeing up the dentist to perform more advanced procedures. Therefore, it is quite common for dental hygienists to perform many of the preventive dental procedures in an office, such as teeth cleaning, examining patients for oral diseases and other preventative dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.

What does a Dental Hygienist do?
One the biggest differences between a dentist and a dental hygienist is the function of their role. You really only spend a fair amount of time with your dentist if there’s a problem — for example, you might need treatment for gum disease or have a cavity that needs to be filled. A hygienist, on the other hand, is there to maintain preventative care and help you to avoid any significant issues. They are usually the person responsible for cleaning your teeth during a routine appointment. Your hygienist will scrape the tartar and plaque off of your teeth and polish them.  Hygienists also usually take X-rays of your teeth and gums, give patients a fluoride rinse, and apply sealants to the teeth to ward off cavities. Your hygienist will also review ways to care for your teeth and overall health at home, offering tips on ways to brush and floss, and on what foods to avoid or to eat for a healthy mouth.

Do the training requirements differ between dentist and dental hygienists?

Dental Hygienist training requirements:
Just like dentists, dental hygienists need special training in order to do their jobs. But, typically, the amount of training a person needs to become a hygienist is less than the training required to be a dentist. Both associate degree level (two year) and bachelor’s degree level (four year) programs qualify a person to take the exam and become a licensed dental hygienist. What is particularly important is that the program a person participates in is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. After completing a degree program, an aspiring hygienist needs to pass an exam to earn a license to practice in his or her state. A licensed hygienist is able to include the initials “RDH” after his or her name, for registered dental hygienist.

Dentist training requirements:
Dentists, on the other hand, need a few more years of education before they can legally practice as dentists. Dental school is a requirement for all dentists. To get into dental school, a student needs to take a number of science courses during their undergraduate degree program. If a person’s goal is to be a general dentist, he or she is able to practice after earning a dental degree. Dentists who hope to specialize need to complete a few more years of training, usually in the form of a residency program. Depending on the program and specialty, a residency can be anywhere from two to four years long. Like hygienists, dentists need to be licensed by their state to practice. Dental specialists also need an additional license in their particular specialty.

Do you have any questions about the difference between your dentist and dental hygienist? Call Westermeier Martin Dental Care to schedule an appointment with your dentist 716-508-4547.