A person considering a new career or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene may wonder, “What is a typical day for a dental hygienist?” It is important to know what the typical job duties are for a dental hygienist so that a person can decide if this is how they want to spend their career. Understanding the usual activities in a day’s work for a dental hygienist could facilitate the choice of a person’s area of study for their degrees.
Interview Patients About Their Oral Health
When a person arrives at a dental clinic or private practice dental office, the hygienist interviews them about their oral health. The hygienist typically asks questions such as whether the person brushes and flosses daily, which oral care products they use at home and whether or not any of their teeth are bothering them. The dental hygienist may also ask about lifestyle or behavior, such as if the person uses tobacco, vapes, or consumes alcohol. These questions are especially important since tobacco and alcohol use can cause dental issues and increase a patient’s risk for some types of cancer.
Dental hygienists generally see patients before the dentist does, so they are vital when it comes to making sure the patient is comfortable with dental care. Many people have some level of anxiety about seeing the dentist, especially if they are coming in for a filling or other non-routine procedure. A good dental hygienist can answer initial questions the patient has, and they can help anxious patients feel more at ease.
While the dental hygienist will usually document the information gathered from patients into an office’s computer system, dentists typically don’t read this information right before seeing a patient. The hygienist is therefore responsible for thoroughly yet efficiently relaying the most relevant information to the dentist. This is especially important since a dentist needs as much information as possible to treat a patient.
Interviewing patients is just one way that dental hygienists interact with patients, so it’s not surprising that dental hygienists need to have excellent people skills. They often have to interact with a wide range of people each day — a hygienist may need to talk to a kindergartener about brushing their teeth right after helping a senior citizen adjust to dentures. And while the dental office may not be a particularly emotional place, hygienists do need to deal with the occasional difficult patient. De-escalation skills and an even temper can be very helpful to have.
A dental hygienist spends a lot of their time cleaning the teeth of patients. They remove plaque and tartar from the teeth and gums. This process takes some time and attention to detail. Over time, plaque builds up on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky, bacteria-filled substance that can eventually cause cavities. Over time, it hardens into tartar, which will need to be scaled off by a hygienist. Removing all tartar takes some time, and hygienists are tasked with removing all of it without causing damage or excessively irritating the gums. This is a skill that can take some time to perfect. In order to reach all tooth surfaces, hygienists will often need to use a small mirror. Maneuvering both a mirror and a scaler can take practice, but most hygienists take to it relatively easily.
During a routine dental visit, hygienists are also responsible for the finishing touches. They will typically floss a patient’s teeth. This may sound unnecessary, but a hygienist can typically do a more complete job when flossing. They also can identify any areas that the patient has not been able to adequately floss. And lastly, flossing a patient’s teeth lets the hygienist see if there are any spots when the gums bleed. In some cases, this can be a sign of gum disease.
Hygienists also help improve the aesthetics of patients’ teeth. They polish the teeth, making use of ultrasonic tools, lasers, or special preparations of products that lift stains from enamel. If patients have come in for special whitening procedures, hygienists usually take care of that too.
In many cases, a dental hygienist will assist the dentist with procedures such as a dental filling or extraction. If rinsing or suction is needed over the course of these procedures, the hygienist will perform both of these. They may prepare the medications used to numb the patient. Over time, a hygienist will learn how to anticipate what’s needed next in a procedure, and that helps make the entire process go more smoothly. To be successful in this field, a person needs to be comfortable working in smaller spaces — when helping a dentist perform a procedure, there’s very limited space between the dentist and patient.
Dental hygienists may sometimes need to juggle a few patients at a time. Often, if a patient needs some time to recover after a dental procedure, a hygienist will be the one to check in on them. To make sure each patient gets what they need, a dental hygienist should be good at time management and have excellent focus.
The dental hygienist also documents all of the care and procedures performed for the patient. To do this, they need to be able to learn the office’s computer system. Documentation usually involves noting the condition of each tooth, recording each procedure done, and including any recommendations for further treatment.
Perform Routine Preventive Care Procedures
Dental hygienists perform routine preventive care and diagnostic procedures for patients. If a patient needs dental x-rays taken, a hygienist is usually the person who operates the machines and ensures that the x-ray picture is clear. During the x-ray procedures, the hygienist will also give the patient the appropriate shields to reduce their exposure to radiation.
Dental hygienists also routinely assist dentists in what’s called a periodontal probe. In this procedure, the hygienist takes a tiny ruler and records how deeply it fits into the gum pockets around a tooth. The process can take some time, as a complete probe will involve checking six spots around each tooth. The depth of the pockets is recorded, and those measurements (along with whether or not there was any bleeding) help to assess whether the patient has gum disease.
Dental hygienists also assist in restorative dental work. They may take impressions of a person’s teeth so that a crown, bridge or denture can be made. Dental hygienists also apply treatments such as prescription-strength fluoride in order to strengthen the enamel of the teeth. On children and teenagers, the dental hygienists may apply sealants, which lessen the risk of a cavity in the molars. These procedures aren’t particularly hard to do, but there’s sometimes patience involved — it can be difficult to get children to sit still while the fluoride or sealant stays in place.
In some states, dental hygienists are licensed to extract primary teeth and place temporary crowns on any tooth. What hygienists are allowed to do varies widely by state, which is part of why all hygienists need to be licensed in the same state where they work.
Examine Patients for Oral Health Conditions
While a dentist will usually look for dental and oral health conditions as well, a hygienist is usually the first person to screen a patient for any potential issues. One of the things they watch for is oral cancer. This is especially important for patients who use smokeless tobacco or who otherwise have risk factors for oral cancer.
Dental hygienists also need to be on the lookout for signs of gum disease. Often, the early stages of gum disease simply involve red or inflamed gums. Hygienists may also notice that the gums recede, exposing more of the tooth surface. This is an important part of the job — if gum disease is spotted early, there are plenty of things that can be done to manage it. If it’s caught later or left to progress, it can lead to serious issues including tooth loss.
Hygienists can also examine the biting surfaces of the teeth for excessive wear. This is sometimes caused by grinding the teeth, which is also called bruxism. This can usually be mitigated with a custom-fitted mouthguard.
While it isn’t necessarily a dental hygienist’s job (or a dentist’s job) to diagnose non-dental conditions, being very alert can be helpful to the patient. For example, many autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease have painful red spots in the mouth as a symptom. Pale pink or white gums can indicate anemia, and a sweet, fruity scent to the breath may be a sign of diabetes. If a hygienist notices any of these things, they may want to advise their patient to visit a medical doctor.
Educate Patients About Oral Health and Self-Care
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, another typical daily duty for a dental hygienist is conducting patient education. The hygienist informs patients about proper techniques for brushing and flossing teeth. This may sound surprising, but plenty of patients don’t understand the best ways to keep their teeth healthy. For instance, while plenty of people believe that a stiffer toothbrush leads to a better clean, softer toothbrushes are actually better for gum health and still remove most plaque.
Dental hygienists may also make recommendations about which type of toothbrush, toothpaste, or mouthwash to select. They also educate patients about foods, drinks and behaviors that are harmful to oral health. By explaining the relationship between diet and oral health or lifestyle behaviors and oral health, a dental hygienist can reduce a patient’s risk of developing tooth decay, gum disease, or oral cancer. This type of early intervention is crucial. By changing detrimental behaviors relatively early on, dental patients can avoid future painful and expensive dental procedures.
Prepare the Office for Patients
While much of a dental hygienist’s day is spent doing hands-on work, there’s a good deal of preparation and clean-up work done, too. Usually, at the start of the day, the hygienist will look over patient charts. This way, they’ll be able to gain a general idea of what types of appointments (cleanings, fillings, etc.) are happening that day, and they can prepare accordingly. There may be a morning staff meeting to attend, too.
Before the start of the day, hygienists usually check each patient room to make sure it’s stocked with adequate supplies. This helps ensure that the day will move efficiently — nobody will need to stop what they’re doing to restock. And after an appointment is finished, they’re responsible for re-sterilizing all equipment so it’s ready for the next patient. This part of the job may seem a little tedious, but it does offer a break from patient interactions.
While they prepare rooms for patient appointments, dental hygienists also prepare themselves for patient contact. This job doesn’t require as much PPE as some fields. But usually, hygienists will wear face masks, gloves, and eye shields. This minimizes the spread of any pathogens from the hygienist to the patient and vice versa.
While a dental office isn’t the same as a medical office, dental hygienists do need to be prepared for medical emergencies. They receive training on how to safely respond to a medical emergency should it happen to a patient.
Work Flexible Schedules
Most dental offices have hours that line up with the traditional workday. However, being a dental hygienist isn’t usually a 9-5 job. Most hygienists work 8-hour shifts at a time, and they usually see one patient per hour. But they usually don’t work five days per week — most work three or four days. In some cases, hygienists may work for more than one office.
You might imagine that dental hygienists only work in traditional dental offices. However, they may choose to work in different institutions including hospitals, prisons, public health facilities, and schools. They may also work in the offices of oral surgeons and similar professionals — while they likely won’t often do routine cleanings, they can assist surgeons in often-complex procedures.
Knowing what a typical day is like for a dental hygienist is important to anyone interested in entering this career. A person’s expectations for the job might not always be in line with what an average day is like, so knowing the usual activities of a dental hygienist may make it easier to choose a career path. While working as a dental hygienist may not incorporate a lot of variety, the job itself is very rewarding — you’ll get to help countless patients move toward smiles they can be proud of.