What’s the Difference Between a Dental Hygienist and a Dental Assistant?

Nov 04 2020

PCI student examining teeth

If you’re interested in becoming a Dental Assistant, you might be wondering: What’s the difference between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist? The two positions are commonly mistaken for one another, and while they do have some similarities, they’re actually more different than you’d think!

Here are the key ways that a Dental Assistant is different from a Dental Hygienist.

Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist
What is it? A position in a dental office that handles the administrative work and assists the dentist during treatment. A position in a dental office in charge of performing dental cleanings and doing a preliminary analysis on a patient’s oral health.
What type of education is required? Diploma Associate’s degree
How long does it take to complete? As little as 10 months Around 2 years
Where can you work?
  • Dental offices
  • Insurance companies
  • Dental product companies
  • And more
  • Dental offices
  • Dental product companies
  • And more
Is this program offered at PCI? Yes No

How Are These Two Careers Different?

Different Levels of Patient Care

Dental Assistants work with patients before, during, and after a dental procedure. They assist the dentist during procedures but don’t directly perform services like cleanings or fluoride administration. They can also provide services like:

  • Taking and developing x-rays
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Applying sealants
  • Processing insurance
  • Handling patient records
  • Ordering dental equipment
  • And more

Dental Assistants work directly with the dentist during a procedure rather than alone with the patient. They also work directly with the patient to get patient records, handle insurance, and any other necessary paperwork to make each appointment run smoothly. Learn more about what being a Dental Assistant is like.

PCI student getting a closer look at someone's mouth

A Dental Hygienist directly performs dental procedures to prepare a patient for the dentist. This includes performing services like:

  • Routine cleanings
  • Application of fluoride treatments
  • Applying sealants
  • Treating gum disease
  • Removing sutures and dressings
  • Administering a local anesthetic
  • Providing dental education and instruction to patients
  • And more

While a Dental Hygienist still works with the dentist as needed, they mostly work one-on-one with patients. They are often the first person who works on your mouth and will also provide any details they noticed during the cleaning to your dentist to investigate further.

Dental Assistants Handle More Administrative Duties

Dental Assistants are responsible for most administrative duties in a dental office. These include creating and maintaining patient records, processing insurance information, scheduling appointments, answering phones, and ordering supplies.

A Dental Hygienist also works with patients’ medical histories and examines radiographs, but they usually don’t work the front desk as a Dental Assistant does.

Degree vs. Certificate Programs

To become a Dental Hygienist, you’ll need at least an associate’s degree from a Dental Hygienist program. This often takes a minimum of two years to complete. You are also required to take a national board examination to obtain your license. All states require Hygienists to be licensed, but exact licensure rules vary by each state.

Dental Assistants don’t necessarily require a degree, but investing in a good education can set your future career up for success. You can choose to complete a diploma program like the one at Pittsburgh Career Institute, where you can learn a variety of skills you can use in your future career.

It’s Possible To Become a Dental Assistant in Less Than a Year

Our Dental Assistant diploma program takes roughly 10 months to complete, though program lengths vary based on school and state requirements. However, Dental Hygienist programs often take a minimum of two years to complete in order to obtain an associate’s degree.

Because our program is much shorter than many Dental Hygienist programs, it’s possible to start your career in the dental industry much sooner. Learn more about how long it takes and what’s included as part of a Dental Assistant education.

How Are These Two Careers Similar?

The Curriculum May Overlap

While the care a Dental Hygienist provides may be different than a Dental Assistant, it is possible that both positions may assist a dentist during treatment, whether it’s sanitizing equipment or handing certain equipment to the dentist during treatment.

Both are crucial to keeping a dental office running smoothly, and both work as part of a team to provide good care to patients. They may also get a similar education in anatomy, biology, and the study of diseases and treatment options common in dentistry.

PCI students examining dental equipment.

Both Careers Are in Demand

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists are in demand, with a higher than average career growth from 2019 to 2029. This means that no matter what career you pursue, it is possible to find a career you can love!

Both of these careers also often provide flexibility that other careers don’t, as some dental offices offer part-time scheduling options to their Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists.

Both Require Similar Personality Traits

If you consider yourself organized, want to pursue a career that allows you to help others, and learn best in a hands-on environment, a future as a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist could be a good fit for you!

When determining whether you want to pursue an education as a Dental Assistant or a Dental Hygienist, you may want to consider how soon you want to enter your career. Something else to consider is whether you thrive on handling paperwork or would rather work directly with patients.

It may also be a good option to start as a Dental Assistant first, and pursue later education as a Dental Hygienist.

Learn How To Pursue a Dental Assistant Career

If you’ve decided that a future in the dental industry is right for you, consider applying to the Dental Assistant program at Pittsburgh Career Institute! We can help prepare you to work with patients and assist dentists with an education that can help you stand out.

Our mission is to help future professionals in the medical industry be prepared for their careers, as many of our programs offer opportunities for externships and lab work, giving you real-world experience while you’re still in school.

You can start the application process online or learn more about how to become a Dental Assistant in Pennsylvania.

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