If you only see a dental hygienist as part of a scheduled visit to your dentist's office, you might be forgiven for thinking they primarily play an assistant's role. In truth, they're skilled practitioners in their own right. Their responsibilities vary by state, but dental hygienists can diagnose oral diseases, order and perform X-rays or other tests, create temporary fillings, and even perform some orthodontic procedures. If you're interested in dental hygiene, you can choose between several career paths.
Clinical practice in a dentist's office is the main career path for hygienists, with fewer than 8,000 of the country's estimated 184,110 dental hygienists working in any other venue. Of course, your situation can vary with your skills and experience. You might be an employee, just putting in your hours and taking home a paycheck. You might be an entrepreneur, running your own practice within the setting of a larger dental clinic. You might even be a partner in the dental clinic, holding equity in the practice and sharing in the decision-making.
Other Clinical Settings
Doctors' offices, outpatient clinics and many other health care settings also need dental hygienists. Diabetes, heart disease and other conditions can affect a patient's oral health, and doctors who specialize in those illnesses sometimes hire a hygienist to treat their patients. In areas where dentists are rare or patients are impoverished, clinics might hire a hygienist to provide basic dental care. Entrepreneurial hygienists can set up an independent practice, networking with multiple dentists to provide hygiene services in a specific geographic area.
Institutional or Public Health
If you're community-minded, you might opt for a career in public health. You could serve directly in local governments, advising legislators or creating oral-health strategies for entire communities. Alternatively you might provide care on a large scale through institutional settings, such as government-funded programs to provide schoolchildren with fluoride treatments, dental sealants or other preventive measures. Some large institutional environments such as schools, prisons and the military, employ dental hygienists to provide care for their populations.
Research can be a solid career option, if you have a scientific mind. There are jobs to be had at universities and other pure research settings, or with major companies who manufacture dental products. Research hygienists participate in field trials of new products, or help assess the dental health of large groups of subjects.
When that research results in new products, treatments or techniques, the corporations that provide them have to get the attention of dentists and hygienists. Corporations employ limited numbers of hygienists either to sell the products, or to support the sales team with product demonstrations and technical assistance.
Like any other large industry, health care has a substantial need for managers and administrators. In dental clinics, research facilities and public health, dental hygienists can expect to fill some of those positions. If that's your ambition, taking a degree in business or health care administration is a strong career move.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for dental hygienists will grow by a whopping 38 percent by 2020, much more than the average for other occupations. To meet that demand, dental schools will need lots of qualified hygienists to serve as instructors. Hygienists also need continuing education (CE) to maintain their certifications, and providing CE can be either a job or an entrepreneurial opportunity.
2016 Salary Information for Dental Hygienists
Dental hygienists earned a median annual salary of $72,910 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, dental hygienists earned a 25th percentile salary of $60,500, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $86,390, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 207,900 people were employed in the U.S. as dental hygienists.
- Explore Health Careers: Dental Hygienist
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Dental Hygienist
- American Dental Association: Dental Hygienist
- American Dental Hygienists Association: Career Paths
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics -- Dental Hygienists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Dental Hygienists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Hygienists
- Career Trend: Dental Hygienists
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.