Dental hygienists and dentists: A comparison

From an early age, we’re asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some kids know the answer and some don’t. Most change their minds constantly. According to Virginia Gordon, author of The Undecided College Student: An Academic and Career Advising Challenge, around half of students start college as “undecided.” Around two-thirds of students change majors before graduating. Students often have a general idea of which field they prefer, though.

Dentistry is one popular field, but many who show an interest in dentistry don’t know whether they want to become dentists or registered dental hygienists. Both are licensed dental professionals. Both require specialized training beyond the basic college coursework, with a doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.) requiring more school than a registered dental hygienist (R.D.H.). The difference, however, goes well beyond schooling. That’s why it’s important for those who are on the fence to research both paths. So when it comes to dental hygienists vs. dentists, what are the differences?

RDH vs. dentist: In the clinic

One of the biggest differences between dental hygienists and dentists is the role they play in the dental practice. If you’re wondering whether to become a dentist or an RDH, the first thing to consider is which aspects of clinical care interest you the most.

The RDH conducts oral prophylaxis, charts dental conditions, carries out preventative dental hygiene care and is an important part of the dentist’s supporting team. The RDH may conduct screening procedures. These include head and neck screenings, blood pressure checks and health history reviews. Registered dental hygienists often take x-rays and make impressions of teeth when necessary. If the hygienist spots a potential problem, he or she passes that information on to the dentist. RDHs often counsel patients on home care. The RDH may work alongside the dentist, assisting in procedures such as fillings.

The dentist’s job is similar in some ways, but there are key differences. The dentist has the supervisory role in the clinical setting. He or she conducts patient exams and carries out procedures such as decay removal, fillings and other dental repairs. The dentist is responsible for analyzing patient information collected by the RDH. The dentist also diagnoses dental disease and mechanical problems. Dentists make referrals to specialists such as oral surgeons and orthodontists as needed.

RDH vs. dentist: Salary talk lists the median hourly rate for an RDH at $34.27 and the median annual salary at $57,509. The median hourly rate of a dentist is $66.56, and the median annual salary is listed at $125,174. Estimates vary depending on the source, but this gives a general picture of the difference in salary. If you want to consider salary when choosing a profession, dentist may seem like the obvious choice. However, it’s important to consider expenses such as student debt. Startup costs are also a factor for those who want to own a practice.

RDH vs. dentist: Business ownership and career paths

Dentists are often practice owners, but they don’t have to be. Dental hygienists usually don’t own practices, but they can in some states. One thing dentists and RDHs have in common is an ability to choose from a variety of career paths.

RDHs can work in a single dental practice, in multiple practices at once or through a temp agency for dental hygienists. Other options include clinics that serve underprivileged populations, military clinics and dental hygiene professional schools. RDH temp jobs are available through temp agencies for dental hygienists or through more modern, cloud-based tools such as Cloud Dentistry.

Dentists often begin work as associates (some with a contractual buy-in option, as Chris Salierno describes in his blog, the Curious Dentist). Dentists may eventually own a practice or enter into corporate dentistry. If a dentist is not ready for or not interested in ownership, he or she may take a full-time job, a part-time job, temp jobs or some combination. Temp agencies aren’t just for dental hygienists. They’re great for dentists who are just starting out. When looking to fill their work schedules, dentists may use placement agencies or job-matching platforms like Cloud Dentistry to find work. Non-clinical prospects include educational settings and consultant positions.

Thinking about dentistry?

Despite the differences between RDHs and dentists, they tend to share a love of dentistry and helping patients. Dental practice owners know that both professions are critical to practice success. Those considering dentistry must also consider the many shapes a dental career can take.

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