Last Updated on April 13, 2021 by A. Scott, BSDH
How urgently you need a dental hygienist actually depends upon your goals.
Do I need a dental hygienist as an individual patient?
Good oral health is key for maintaining overall health and wellness. But many people only visit the dentist when there is already a problem.
As a result, dentists are often busy fixing teeth or diagnosing dental problems.
Visits to repair teeth are traumatic for some. This makes them less likely to return until another problem forces them to do so. This vicious cycle usually then leads to preventable tooth loss and shame for the patient.
There is though, a culture in the dental world of visiting a dental professional often to prevent dental problems.
As the dentist is usually busy fixing teeth with his or her dental assistants by their side, this leaves little time for prevention.
What other dental professionals exist whose main goal is to prevent future disease and to keep teeth healthy?
This is the dental hygienist.
What is a dental hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a licensed dental worker. They are independent of the dentist but share the same goal. This goal is to help patients achieve and maintain good oral health.
A dental hygienist may work in the same office as the dentist, or separately, in a dental hygiene practice. Dental hygienists must earn a degree as well as a license to practice the profession.
The college courses taken at American colleges and universities include science based courses.
Some of these are Anatomy and Physiology, Biology, Microbiology, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Nutrition, Communication, Psychology, Oral Pathology and Dental Materials.
This well-rounded education allows the dental hygienist to pick up potential problems in the mouth and either monitor or treat them.
The hygienist will make the patient aware of any potential oral problems and offer guidance on how to prevent small issues from becoming worse.
If the dental hygienist is unable to treat the problem, they will refer the patient elsewhere. Dental hygienists do not usually fix cavities or holes in the teeth, but they do treat gum disease.
What does a dental hygienist do?
Many people have never heard of a dental hygienist. Others don’t know that there is a branch of dentistry that focuses on prevention.
This profession is usually only supported by people that can afford access to this type of care.
The dental hygiene department usually sees all of the patients in their practice twice per year. Patients will visit the hygienist more frequently when dental disease is active.
The dental hygiene appointment will usually start with a blood pressure screening and a review of the patient’s medical history.
This review helps to uncover any systemic diseases, since many systemic illnesses will present themselves orally.
What happens during a dental hygiene appointment?
Before starting any treatment, an appointment begins with a pre-rinse. This will reduce the number of bad bacteria in the mouth for a short period of time.
Next, the dental hygienist begins his or her treatment with an oral cancer screening. This is an examination of the soft (gums) and hard (teeth) tissues of the mouth.
It can include gently palpating the mouth and other parts of the face and measuring the pockets around the teeth.
After this, X-rays may also be taken. These help the hygienist and the dentist to better understand a patient’s oral condition. X-rays show beyond areas that are visible purely from looking in the mouth.
The hygienist checks for signs of cavities or soft spots in the enamel, before checking the teeth for mobility. For future reference, the dental hygienist will record all of these findings.
Finally the teeth will be cleaned and this usually takes place on the same appointment. If there are severe cases of dental disease requiring additional treatment, more appointments will be scheduled.
After the teeth are well cleaned, the hygienist offers homecare advice and if needed, cleaning aids. This ensures that the teeth remain in top form.
How long does a dental hygiene appointment last?
A dental hygiene appointment usually takes around 60 to 90 minutes to complete. It may be followed up by a full dental check-up on that visit or at a later date.
The dental hygiene appointment is rarely painful, unless there are already areas of irritation present in the mouth.
Properly trained dental hygienists must work with finesse to avoid damaging soft tissues.
If areas of irritation cannot be avoided during the treatment, they can be numbed. A short-acting, light numbing gel will lessen the discomfort during the appointment.
Many patients look forward to their dental hygiene appointments since they involve little to no pain. Patients also like the feeling of having a clean mouth afterwards and they also appreciate the preventive services.
Do I need a dental hygienist, though? Can’t my dentist just do the same thing?
Not really. While a dentist can provide maintenance and prevention services, it is not of the same quality. This is why you need a dental hygienist specifically.
For example, dentists can make their own crowns (caps), bridges and dentures because they learned to do so in dental school. However, they usually assign such work to a specialist dental lab.
Why? Lab technicians are specialized and so deliver a much better product than the average dentist.
The same applies to carrying out preventive and maintenance services. A dentist could provide the same preventive and maintenance services, but a dental hygienist is specialized and delivers a superior service.
Dentists who wish to see their work last for decades need a dental hygienist who they can trust to maintain their work.
So what happens if I never go to a dental hygienist?
I often meet patients who have never seen a dental hygienist in my current practice. Dental hygiene remains a new concept in Germany and is still not widely known.
Since a general culture of prevention does not exist, individuals wonder why they even need a dental hygienist.
Many patients seek the help of my dentist because he is a periodontist (gum specialist). Sometimes a periodontist is the patient’s last hope before tooth loss from gum disease.
Many of our patients have gone to their dentists loyally twice per year for an exam and “cleaning”. The patients trusted that they were receiving the correct standard of care. Nevertheless, they describe their “cleanings” as lasting about 15 minutes.
They also describe it as being done either by the dentist or by his or her assistant. More on what happens when the assistant cleans the teeth later.
By the time some patients come to our specialty practice for help, they may have full blown periodontal (gum) disease. This is because it was never properly diagnosed before.
Periodontal disease in its late stages results in tooth loss.
Losing teeth to a preventable condition leaves patients feeling bitter disappointment. Sometimes patients don’t realize that they needed a dental hygienist until it’s too late.
What is the worst-case scenario of gum disease?
If you never go to see a dental hygienist regularly, you may be just fine. However, the worst-case scenario is that you will lose some or all of your teeth. This would be due to undiagnosed or improperly treated gum disease.
Seeing a dentist yearly for exams and quick “cleanings” is not enough to keep a healthy smile. There is a lot of science behind preventing dental disease and maintaining dental health and wellness.
Most importantly, preventive dentistry takes time and skill.
Dentists do a wonderful job of repairing and restoring their patients’ teeth. However, they may not have the time or the specialized skill to maintain their work and a patient’s oral health.
Conclusion 1: To prevent tooth decay and gum disease, you need to see a dental hygienist regularly.
Do I need a dental hygienist as a business owner?
How urgently you need a dental hygienist in your dental practice is also determined by what your goals are.
Can’t I just show my dental assistant how to clean and let them do it? Then I won’t even need a dental hygienist.
Many dentists actually do this because they truly believe that anyone can ‘clean’ teeth. Maybe this is true. However, dental hygienists do more than ‘clean’ teeth.
To give your patients the best quality treatment, you need a specially trained professional for the preventive and maintenance work.
The idea of delegating dental treatments to a dental hygienist is based on understanding the importance of prevention. Hygienists have the knowledge and training to identify problems and address them accordingly.
You could ask yourself if your dental assistants can do the same. Preventing dental problems is difficult if the dental assistant only cleans and must rely on the dentist to diagnose problems.
Many things need to be regularly checked in the patient’s mouth and documented. This helps prevent small problems from becoming worse. Meaning: this adds value and longevity to your work.
Many dentists do not have the time to do such a thorough examination for every patient on every visit. Therefore, the dental hygienists provide a second set of diagnosing eyes that many dentists find invaluable.
Even if I need a dental hygienist, won’t they just cost me more money?
Not at all. A dental hygiene department increases the overall earnings of the dental practice.
Patients can sense this value. They are better cared for and feel more willing to visit the practice multiple times per year.
Dental hygienists maintain the dental work done by the dentist. This adds to the quality and longevity of the dentist’s work.
Patients are usually more educated about their mouths when under the care of a dental hygienist. Therefore, they see the value in investing more money in preventive service.
The more frequently the patients visit the office, the more opportunities for revenue exist. All of this together increases the practice revenue.
Do I need a separate operatory for a dental hygienist?
Something to consider is how many open treatment chairs you have. Is there a chair or a room that can become a dedicated hygienist’s chair?
Do you have instruments and equipment to support a dental hygiene department? Or will they need to be ordered? Who will be in charge of ordering the dental hygiene instruments on a regular basis?
What about radiographs? Will the hygienist take x-rays during the hygiene appointments? If the hygienist is unable to take x-rays, do you have enough dental assistants to do so?
If you wish to establish a dental hygiene department in your practice, contact us via our coaching and consulting page. We offer all the guidance you need to get started.
How much should a dental hygienist earn?
A dental hygienist’s salary is dependent upon the market where he or she works.
If the area is affluent and prices are high, they should earn more. The general salary of a dental hygienist is split three ways based on the production of the dental hygiene department.
Example dental hygiene department revenue split: 30% to 33% should go to the hygienist, 30% to 33% to the employer and 30% to 33% to the hygiene department.
The average dental hygiene salary in the U.S. usually ranges from $30 – $50 per hour.
Conclusion 2: You need a dental hygienist to care for your patients, increase the quality and longevity of your work and bring in more money for the practice.
So do I really need a dental hygienist then?
If you’re looking to prevent future dental problems and maintain good overall health and wellness, the answer is clearly “yes”.
And if you run a dental practice and wish to increase your overall earnings, the answer is also “yes”.
Dental hygienists maintain beautiful smiles and are an invaluable part of the dental team.
Other frequently asked questions about dental hygienists
Do I need to study for as long as a dentist, to become a dental hygienist?
Not really. You don’t need to study for as long a dentist would in the U.S. They study for eight years. However, many dental hygienists hold a Bachelor’s degree. This usually requires four years of study.
In some countries, a dentist also studies for 4-5 years. So, the length of the dental hygiene course and how it compares to dental school depends on the country.
How can I establish a dental hygiene department in my practice?
Be certain that the dental board in your country approves of someone other than the you (the dentist) providing dental care. This is the single most important point.
For example, in France and Luxembourg, it is illegal for anyone other than a dentist to provide dental care.
If dental hygienists are allowed to practice, you should plan your dental hygiene department carefully.
For example, do you have access to dental hygienists locally, or will you need to recruit abroad? Will you have enough patients to support a dental hygienist’s schedule?
A normal hygienist works an eight-hour schedule for a full day, or one patient per hour.
Another good question is whether patients are able to pay for a dental hygienist’s services. For example, how many patients will be willing to pay for this type of treatment? If the number is low, will insurance cover a professional cleaning to help attract a lower income patient base?
The charge for a hygienist’s services must also be enough to allow the hygienist to earn an attractive salary.
If you do decide to have a dental hygienist in your practice and if you plan well, you won’t be disappointed.