Before we dive into what a day in the life of a dental hygienist may look like, we first have to emphasize how important and integral this role is in regard to the overall success of a dental practice. Not only do dental hygienists fill a critical role in improving access to quality dental services, but they also serve as a significant resource for oral healthcare education. Additionally, the profession is growing: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% increase in dental hygienist job openings between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than the average rate of growth for other professions in that time period.
While their duties have changed over the years, dental hygienists still primarily provide preventive cleanings, but are also assigned additional responsibilities. Their typical day may include everything from: treating patients and updating patient histories to reviewing radiographs and, often, maintaining and inventorying equipment in the dental office. Dental hygienists work under the direction of a dentist and while they are not able to make diagnostic decisions, they do work on their own and typically treat about 8-10 patients each workday. For each patient, the process typically follows this format:
- Assess patient status
- Probe and analyze the patient’s mouth
- Determine whether X-rays are needed
- Perform full dental cleaning
- Create a treatment plan for the patient
If extensive dental work is required, a hygienist may assist the dentist by administering the anesthetic necessary for the procedure.
A more detailed look at the workday of a dental hygienist includes diverse job duties on a flexible schedule, including the following:
When a patient comes to a dental office for a cleaning, the dental hygienist conducts the initial interview before delivering treatment. The purpose of this opening conversation is to make a patient feel comfortable and to learn about a patient’s oral history, which helps to determine what dental treatment a patient may need now and in the future. It’s also the hygienist’s responsibility to share the patient’s responses with the dentist.
During the conversation, the hygienist can address any concerns a patient may have about oral health and clarify the steps of the cleaning procedure to make the patient feel more at ease. A hygienist often interacts with patients of all ages, from young children to older adults, so the ability to adapt to various communication styles is critical.
Here are examples of pre-cleaning questions a hygienist may ask:
- How many times a day do you brush your teeth?
- Do you use a manual or an electric toothbrush?
- What kind of toothpaste do you use?
- How often do you floss?
- What type of floss do you use?
- Do your gums bleed when you brush or floss?
- Are you experiencing any pain or discomfort with your teeth?
- Do you drink alcohol, chew tobacco or vape?
Teeth cleaning is a primary responsibility in a typical day for a dental hygienist. Here’s what that means:
- A hygienist uses a tool called a scaler to remove plaque and tartar that have accumulated on the patient’s teeth and gums. For a thorough cleaning, a hygienist uses a mirror to see the surfaces in the mouth to ensure that all bacteria is gone. The cleaning is detailed but gentle, prioritizing the patient’s comfort while treating the teeth and gums.
- After using the scaler, the hygienist flosses between the patient’s teeth to extract the remaining particles. Certain areas of the mouth, such as the back molars, can be challenging for patients to reach on their own. A professional cleaning from a dental hygienist can extend to the entire mouth, helping patients achieve healthier smiles.
- Other steps of the cleaning process include polishing, which helps to reduce stains on the enamel; and teeth whitening.
Diagnostic & Preventive Care Procedures
Performing a diagnostic procedure is another common aspect in the day of a dental hygienist. Before developing a treatment plan, the dentist may need X-rays of the patient’s mouth to gain a better understanding of the position of their teeth and the health of their gums. The hygienist places a shield on the patient, which protects the patient from radiation exposure, and uses the X-ray machine to capture images of the inside of the mouth. The hygienist may direct the patient to relax their tongue and bite down on objects during the testing.
Further, a preventive care procedure helps to restore the patient’s oral health so that they can avoid dental issues. For example, to prevent cavities in pediatric patients, a hygienist places sealants and fluoride on the teeth, which can also strengthen tooth enamel. Every activity that takes place during the hygiene appointment earns an entry in the patient’s dental health record, which is critical to properly tracking each patient’s oral history while monitoring progress in the treatment plan.
Often at the end of a hygiene appointment, a hygienist leads a conversation focused on educating a patient about caring for their teeth. This may include recommending oral products to use to strengthen tooth enamel, maintain cleanliness in the mouth, and whiten the teeth.
A hygienist will also demonstrate how to brush and floss properly, making sure a patient knows the most effective way to remove food particles from their mouth to reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar. The purpose of patient education is to emphasize healthy oral habits that can also decrease the likelihood of developing dental conditions like gum disease.
When not seeing patients or speaking with the dentist, a dental hygienist is organizing patient rooms before, between, and after appointments. This can include restocking supplies, disinfecting cleaning equipment, and replacing tools, which helps dental hygienists prepare for their appointments and deliver prompt treatment to patients. At the start of the day, a hygienist may also review the schedule of patients to properly prepare the room accordingly with relevant supplies and tools.
What questions do you have for our awesome team of dental hygienists? They work tirelessly day in and day out, and we appreciate them for everything that they contribute to the HDG experience.