What Does a Dental Hygienist Do? Entry-level to Senior Dental Hygienist Specialisations (With Job Descriptions)
Dental hygienists make a huge positive impact on people’s lives. Dental health is key to overall health and everyone’s ability to smile.
The dental health field is surprisingly broad. There are a range of specialisations dental hygienists can take on during the course of their career. From entry-level through to senior specialisations, there’s a lot of growth available for passionate professionals.
What are those specialisations? How do you enter the industry? And where can a career in dental hygiene take you? This article will help you to answer these questions, and help you figure out if a career in dental hygiene is for you.
Certificate III or IV in Dental Assisting
Dental assistants (or dental nurses) help dentists, dental hygienists, or dental therapists with their general duties. They assist with a range of tasks, including providing care to patients as part of dental procedures, sterilising and maintaining dental instruments, and keeping a clean environment.
You can also find assisting jobs in orthodontic practice, which is a similar role but more focused on helping patients with their braces, retainers, or other orthodontic appliances.
Key dental assistant responsibilities include:
- Preparing patients before their dental treatments and procedures.
- Ensuring that treatment rooms are clean and that instruments are sterile and in their correct place.
- Assisting dental practitioners during procedures to retrieve instruments and provide suction.
Dental assistant is an entry-level role in dentistry. Although no formal qualifications are required to become a dental assistant, a TAFE course such as a Certificate III or IV in Dental Assisting would be preferred by most employers. If you try this career path and decide you like it, there are opportunities to progress to higher paid positions. You could qualify to become a dental hygienist or dental therapist.
Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science
Certificate IV in Dental Assisting (Dental Radiography)
Medical imaging is used in dental practice to diagnose issues in the teeth, mouth, and jaw. Dental radiographers operate imaging technologies safely, and to make sure that dental practitioners have a clear picture of their patients’ dental health.
Key dental radiograpgher responsibilities include:
- Performing x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs, as needed.
- Ensuring patient safety at all times, for instance by ensuring that radiation exposure levels are low.
- Ensuring quality images by positioning the patient correctly and helping them to remain still.
You can get an entry-level job as a dental radiographer once you finish a relevant qualification. It is common to hold a Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science or an equivalent degree. A faster pathway to qualify as a dental radiographer is a Certificate IV in Dental Assisting (Dental Radiography) (HLT45021).
This one year qualification will get you into the field, allowing you to discover if it interests you enough to pursue further study.
You’ll also need to register with an appropriate professional body such as the Medical Radiation Practice Board of Australia or the Australasian Sonographer Accreditation Registry.
Entry-level to Mid Level
Advanced Diploma of Oral Health (Dental Hygiene)
Bachelor of Oral Health
Experience as a dental assistant
Dental hygienists perform procedures to prevent dental disease and can play a major role in patient education. While dentists perform more invasive procedures like fillings and root canals, the role of a dental hygienist focuses on preventative care. This could include teaching people how to care for their teeth and gums and offering cleanings. The point is to help patients well before they require any more invasive procedures.
Key dental hygienist responsibilities include:
- Performing dental health examinations on patients.
- Cleaning teeth.
- Showing patients how to care for their teeth with proper brushing and flossing techniques and dietary advice.
- Giving fluoride treatments to patients as necessary.
- Referring patients to dentists for more complex or invasive treatments such as fillings.
Dental hygienist can be an entry-level career if you have relevant qualifications. Either the Advanced Diploma of Oral Health (Dental Hygiene) or Bachelor of Oral Health will allow you to register and qualify as a dental hygienist.
Alternatively, you could gain experience as a dental assistant and move into the dental hygienist field. You could work as an assistant to a dental hygienist to get a feel for the work before pursuing further specialised study.
Dental practice manager
Mid Level to Senior Level
Business or Bookkeeping skills
Experience as a dental practice receptionist
Dental practice manager is a non-clinical role focusing on the business-side of dentistry. You’ll manage patient data, appointments, and payments. You’ll also look after business expenses – like making sure the stationery cupboard is fully stocked and that the clinical staff have all the instruments they need. This job requires a highly organised mind, and at least some familiarity with how a dental practice works.
Key dental practice manager responsibilities include:
- Managing patient records and appointments.
- Billing patients and processing insurance and rebates
- Processing payroll.
- Ordering dental and administrative equipment.
- Keeping track of income and expenditure of the practice.
Dental practice manager is a mid-to-senior-level career. It may be a great role for people who have entered a dental career and are seeking a change of pace and duties.
Dental practice managers should have organisational and administrative skills, which could be developed through business and bookkeeping courses, however no formal qualifications are necessary. You could also gain experience in these duties as a dental practice receptionist or a medical administrator.
Mid Level to Senior Level
Advanced Diploma of Dental Prosthetics
Bachelor of Dental Prosthetics
Dental prosthetists make dental appliances like dentures and mouthguards. This involves customising each appliance to the precise mouth and bite shape of your patients. You’ll consult with patients, to make moulds, and undertake fittings to ensure they work as intended.
Key dental prosthetist responsibilities include:
- Creating moulds or impressions of patients’ teeth.
- Fitting appliances for patients to make sure they’re appropriate to use.
- Fixing, cleaning, or maintaining existing appliances.
- Educating patients on oral hygiene and how to care for their appliances.
- Referring patients on to dentists or specialists for more complex issues.
Dental prosthetist is a specialised career that requires relevant education and registration with the Dental Board of Australia (DBA). Degrees that have been accredited by the DBA include the Advanced Diploma of Dental Prosthetics, the Bachelor of Dental Technology, and the Bachelor of Dental Prosthetics. An alternative entry pathway is to start with a TAFE course such as a Certificate III or IV in Dental Assisting to see if a career in oral health is right for you.
Dental prosthetists can work in mid, and senior-level positions depending on their education and experience. You can work as an employee at a dental laboratory, or in an existing dental practice. You can also become self-employed and run your own clinic. There are also opportunities to move into other roles such as work in dental research.
Many dental prosthetists start out as dental technicians, which is a similar role except dental technicians have fewer responsibilities as they cannot work as independent contractors. Dental technicians tend to work as laboratory employees under the supervision of more senior staff. Dental technicians also don’t need to register with the DBA.
To work as a dental technician, you’ll most likely need a Diploma of Dental Technology. You could also enter the industry as an assistant to a dental technician, which will require a Certificate III in Dental Laboratory Assisting.
Mid Level to Senior Level
Bachelor of Oral Health
Experience as a dental assistant or dental hygienist
Dental therapists primarily work with children and adolescents in community settings. You’ll educate young people on oral health as well as treating them as patients. Dental therapists often work in mobile clinics that go to different schools, particularly in lower socioeconomic and/or regional or remote areas. Alternatively, you may work in a private dental practice.
Key dental therapist responsibilities include:
- Examining children and adolescents teeth and treating oral disease.
- Some dental treatments and services like fillings, extracting baby teeth, cleaning teeth, and taking x-rays.
- Providing one-on-one and/or classroom education on oral health.
- Referring patients to dentists where they have more complex needs.
To work as a dental therapist, you’ll need a Bachelor of Oral Health degree and a registration with the Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association (ADOHTA). An alternative pathway is to complete a TAFE course in Dental Assisting to see if a career in oral health would interest you, and then move into further study.
It is a mid-to-senior-level career which you may move towards if you have experience as a dental assistant or dental hygienist. There are also opportunities for working dental therapists to change career path, for instance into public health policy or administration.
If you’re interested in health, and love working with people, a dental hygiene career may be for you. You can explore the many, varied career paths as you train and gain experience. You can start exploring by comparing your study options.