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What is a Dental Hygienist?

A registered dental hygienist (RDH) is a licensed dental professional who specializes in preventive oral health, typically focusing on techniques in oral hygiene. Dental hygienists provide three types of services to their patients. The first of these is preventive services to promote and maintain good oral health. The second is educational services to help patients develop behaviors that promote better oral heath and help them understand the importance of practicing these behaviors. The third type of service provided is therapeutic services which are treatments meant to stop disease and maintain healthy tissues in the mouth. Local dental regulations determine the scope of practice of dental hygienists. In most jurisdictions, hygienists work for a dentist, and some are licensed to administer local anesthesia. Common procedures performed by hygienists include cleanings known as prophylaxis, scaling and root planning for patients with periodontal disease, taking of prescribed radio graphs, dental sealants, administration of fluoride, and providing instructions for proper oral hygiene and care.

Training to become a Dental Hygienist in the United States

Dental hygienists in the United States must be graduates from a dental hygiene program, with either an associate degree (most common), a certificate, a bachelor's degree or a master's degree from a dental hygienist school that is accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA).
All dental hygienists in the United States must be licensed by the state in which they practice, after completing a minimum of two years of school and passing a written board as well as a clinical board exam. State requirements vary by state, and are controlled by state dental boards.
Dental hygienists school programs usually require both general education courses and courses specific to the field of dental hygiene. General education courses important to dental hygiene degrees include college level algebra, biology, and chemistry. Courses specific to dental hygiene may include anatomy, oral anatomy, materials science, pharmacology, radiography, periodontology, nutrition, and clinical skills.

A Bachelor's of Science in Dental Hygiene is typically a four-year program. Students entering a bachelor's degree program are required to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but many dental hygienists with an associate's degree or certification enter the bachelor's degree programs to expand their clinical expertise and help advance their careers.

Graduate degrees in the field of dental hygiene are typically two-year programs and are completed after the bachelor's degree. Common graduate courses in dental hygiene include Healthcare Management, Lab Instruction, and Clinical Instruction.

After completing one of the more than 200 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States, dental hygienists must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure requirements for becoming a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) vary from state to state, but most require a two-year degree, a written examination, and a clinical examination. The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination is intended to fulfill the written examination requirements. The clinical examination is typically administered by the state licensing board.

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