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Moving from dental assistant to dental hygienist

If you’ve worked as a dental assistant, you’ve built up a good deal of technical knowledge. You know how dental clinics are run, and you’ve been in the room during diagnostic procedures and treatments. This sets you up well to advance your dental career. So how exactly do you transition from being an assistant to being a dental hygienist?

Keep reading to learn what the change in role will mean, the steps you’ll need to take to make it happen and how your experience as a dental assistant will help.

Differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists

Dental assistants handle a range of responsibilities, from scheduling and recordkeeping to preparing patients and equipment for appointments. As a dental hygienist, you may keep a few of these responsibilities but you’ll be directly involved in providing care to patients.

Dental hygienists have additional responsibilities

Dental hygienists are responsible for multiple aspects of patient care. They conduct patients’ initial oral health assessments, including tests and screenings. They also provide preventive care like cleanings, fluoride treatments and patient education. However, hygienists don’t provide the final diagnoses or treatment plans for specific issues.

Dental hygienists have higher salaries

You’ll need additional education, training and certification to become a dental hygienist. The level of expertise and the increased responsibilities of the role mean that dental hygienists have higher compensation than that of dental assistants. Depending on your experience, where you live and the practice where you work, your salary as a hygienist may be between 50-100% more than your dental assistant salary.

How to become a dental hygienist

To begin working as a licensed dental hygienist, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the relevant science, procedures and best practices. This can be done in a few steps.

1. Complete a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program

You can apply for licensure with either an associate or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from a program that’s been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Program lengths vary according to the degree type and the school you attend. Associate degrees generally take about two years, while bachelor’s degrees generally take about four. However, you may be able to test out of some of the prerequisite courses.

Your experience as a dental assistant means that you’ll likely be familiar with some of the subject matter covered in the program’s coursework and clinical training. In addition, your experience can help with the application process, as dental programs are often competitive.

Having support from your employer while you pursue your degree can ease the process. It’s common for people to work as dental assistants while in school to become dental hygienists. However, dental hygiene programs are typically full-time, so this requires flexibility from your employer. Depending on your employer and the program you attend, you may also be able to do your clinical training at your current practice.

2. Pass your required exams

In addition to earning your degree, you’ll need to pass several examinations before you apply for licensure. The exact requirements vary by state. In Minnesota, you need to pass:

  • The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, which assesses your ability to understand and apply information from the biomedical and dental hygiene sciences.
  • A clinical examination administered by the Central Regional Dental Testing Service, American Board of Dental Examiners or Western Regional Examining Board, which evaluates your ability to perform typical dental procedures, make diagnoses and plan treatments.
  • The Minnesota Jurisprudence Examination, which covers knowledge areas, including the general duties of a dental care provider, personal conduct, ethics and infection control.

3. Find an opportunity

Once you’ve earned your degree, passed your exams and are licensed, all that’s left is to start working as a dental hygienist. If you have a good relationship with your current practice, you may be able to make the transition there. If there aren’t any openings for a dental hygienist, ask if you can intern as one or take on some of the additional responsibilities. That experience will prime you for when an opportunity does come up.

Advance your dental career at HealthPartners

If you want to make dental care your career, having an employer that supports you matters. They should recognize the dedication you’re showing by striving to advance your career.

At HealthPartners, we believe in helping each other succeed. With flexible scheduling hours, continuing education reimbursements and the possibility for student loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, you’ll work in an environment that champions your development. We also offer competitive benefits for employees working 15 hours or more per week, including comprehensive medical and dental benefits, generous paid time off (PTO) and a 401k.

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