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What is the Difference Between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?

Confused about who does what at the dentist? Dentistry is a field that encompasses a range of different positions and during an appointment, you won’t be seen by the dentist alone. The dentist will usually have a dental assistant as well as a dental hygienist to assist during consultations and procedures. During routine cleans, it is common for the dental hygienist to run the consultation, rather than the dentist. Here is a breakdown of the different roles in dentistry and what you can expect from whom:

Dental Assistant:

As the name suggests, the primary role of a dental assistant is to assist the dentist with many aspects of the dental practice. A range of duties and responsibilities encompass this position, which are mainly based around:

  • Patient interaction

  • Record-keeping

  • Small procedural tasks under the direction of the dentist

  • Assisting the dentist during procedures and examinations

  • Preparing patients for dental procedures

  • Preparing the dental consultation room with the appropriate tools and equipment

  • Administrative tasks such as billing and the scheduling of appointments

Dental Hygienist:

A dental hygienist is an oral healthcare professional who is trained specifically in preventative oral care. Whilst still working under the supervision of a dentist, it is common for dental hygienists to run routine examinations and cleans without the dentist present. The dental hygienist performs tasks that are more complex and independent and ones that were only performed by dentists in the past. The dental hygienist takes a much bigger hands-on role with patients than a dental assistant does and routinely performs the following duties:

  • Performing preliminary steps in identifying dental conditions

  • Providing dental care information and advice to patients on good oral hygiene practices

  • Cleaning and scaling

  • Polishing teeth

  • Applying dental sealants

  • Perform x-rays

  • Administer fluoride

  • Oral cancer screenings

  • Depending on the location, dental hygienists may also administer anaesthetic, apply fillings and remove sutures

There are varying qualification requirements between the two positions, with dental hygienists requiring a bachelor’s degree and dental assistants needing to complete a one to two year training program. There are also differences in the salary across the two positions, with dental hygienists earning a much higher income than dental assistants. This corresponds to the differing qualification requirements as well as the differencing levels of responsibility. Both positions fall under the overall authority of the dentist who oversees the entire practice.

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