If you’re pursuing a career in the dental field, you may be wondering what the key differences are between a dental hygienist vs. dental assistant. The roles are similar but distinct, and you want to make the right choice for your dental career path.

In this guide, we’ll cover what each role does and the benefits and drawbacks of each, what training you’ll need, and what the job outlook is like for each career so that you can make an informed decision.

Dental Assistant

When considering pursuing a career as a dental assistant vs. a dental hygienist, it’s important to note that a dental assistant’s duties revolve more around clerical work and bedside manner. Each state regulates the practice of dental assistants, with some allowing the assistants to do more hands-on work with patients than others.

What They Do

A dental assistant works closely with the dentist and is responsible for prepping patients and the work area for procedures. This includes sterilizing the instruments and keeping patients comfortable while the dentist does their work. Discussing the procedure, treatment, and proper oral hygiene are also a part of the job.

An assistant will also pass the dental tools needed during the appointment and use suction hoses to dry the patients’ mouths as the dentist works.

This role also can entail clerical work, including, but not limited to, processing x-rays and completing lab tasks. They are also responsible for record-keeping patient treatments and scheduling future appointments with patients. An assistant may handle the billing and payment portion of office work in some situations.

Training They Need

Depending on the state you live in, you may be required to graduate from an accredited dental assisting program and pass certification exams before you can practice. For example in Pennsylvania, in order for a dental assistant to be able to take x-rays they must pass the Radiation Health and Safety and Infection control exam through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB)

There are many additional certifications available to dental assistants that allow them to customize their career path. For example after some experience, dental assistants can sit for the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam, Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) exam, or get additional education to become an Expanded Function Dental Assistant (EFDA). The career possibilities for dental assistants are vast.

Programs typically take about a year to complete (at Great Lakes, the dental assistant program is 10 months in length), granting graduates their diploma. These programs include a combination of clerical work and hands on training in labs to give students a well-rounded education before entering the field. Supervised practice in clinical studies either on campus or through an externship is common, and sometimes required as part of the program.

You will need to be detail-oriented to succeed. Additionally, you’ll want to be a good listener to understand your patients’ needs, and you’ll need to have exceptional organization skills when handling delicate tools.

Job Outlook

As far as a dental assisting goes in terms of job outlook, this career is anticipated to grow faster than the average rate for most occupations. The need to treat and maintain oral healthcare increases with the rising population. Workers who retire will leave open positions for graduates to fill and perform their duties.

Dentists will continue to need help as their practice grows, so hiring dental assistants will be critical to a successful practice. Rest assured that this field is growing which should offer future job security.

Dental Hygienist

On the other side of the comparison, a dental hygienist takes a more hands-on approach to the patient. This role entails examining patients that come in for appointments and educating them about oral health. To an extent, a hygienist may be supervised by a dentist, but they can practice independently within the office and the scope of their duties.

What They Do

A dental hygienist is responsible for cleaning stains and removing tartar and plaque build-up from the surface of your teeth. In addition to educating patients about the importance of flossing every day and using mouthwash, hygienists can take and develop x-rays of the patient’s jaw to better understand how to proceed with care.

Aside from the hands-on work, hygienists are responsible for assessing the patient’s oral health and reporting to the dentist with any findings. There is also clerical work to be done to document the patient’s treatment plans.

Training They Need

You’ll need at least an associate’s degree in dental hygiene before you can begin working in a practice. Still, you may need a higher degree of education to secure employment, depending on your state. Community colleges and universities offer hygiene programs that can be completed in about three years. Technical colleges offer programs as well.

The programs consist of clinical work, classroom work, and laboratory experience to provide a well-rounded education. Students who are still in high school but are interested in this career should focus on STEM classes like biology and chemistry to better understand how the human body works.

For this career, you’ll need to be detail-oriented and dexterous. You’ll also need to think critically when handling patients and have problem-solving skills. Working closely with patients means you’ll need to be sensitive to their pain and act accordingly.

Job Outlook

A position as a dental hygienist is considered to be one of the best jobs in healthcare due to several factors like salary, work-life balance, and future growth in the profession. As the population increases and more people look after their teeth, the need for hygienists will grow to accommodate them. As hygienists retire, graduates will take their place to continue their work.

While the stress level is considered average across the board, the flexibility in scheduling is appealing to many potential hygienists.

Jumpstart Your Dental Assisting Career

Now that you know the difference between a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist, you can decide which career appeals to you more. Both are incredibly important in the healthcare field, but each has different responsibilities. A dental assistant spends much less time in school and enters the workforce faster, and therefore takes on much less debt than a dental hygienist which many people find appealing. A dental hygienist typically spends more time and school and thus must take on more debt, but typically earns more.

If you’re interested in learning more about starting a career as a dental assistant, Great Lakes Institute of Technology offers a 10 month program which is a wonderful pathway to enter this rewarding field.