RDH definition and overview

The RDH, or registered dental hygienist, is an important part of every dental practice. A high level of contact with each patient means that the RDH must be both clinician and customer service expert. Here we define “RDH” with a summary of the dental hygiene profession, including a brief discussion of the RDH’s role in preventative dental health.

RDH definition

A registered dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional who has been through an accredited dental hygiene course of study and passed national and state exams. The hygienist focuses on the prevention and treatment of oral disease. The RDH typically acts as ancillary dental staff under the supervision of a dentist. In most states, an RDH cannot diagnose disease, prescribe treatment or perform treatment (including cleaning) without a prescription from a dentist.

RDH tasks

Defining the dental hygienist’s role is difficult because of the large number of tasks the RDH takes on each day. Let’s look at some of the clinical tasks RDHs take on in most dental practices.

The RDH has a primary role in each patient’s preventative oral healthcare. The dental hygienist is responsible for recording a patient’s health and dental history, checking blood pressure and performing preliminary oral evaluations. X-rays and impressions are often part of the screening process. The RDH carries out periodontal charting and prophylaxis. He or she also alerts the dentist to anything that may help in the diagnosis of oral disease or mechanical problems.

The RDH supports the dentist in dental procedures. An RDH may administer anesthesia or analgesic under the dentist’s supervision.

Overall, the RDH is a major contributor to the dental practice he or she works in. More importantly, the RDH uses dental hygiene to make people’s lives better. As Margaret Walsh and Michele Leonardi Darby put it in their book, Dental Hygiene: Theory and Practice, “Dental hygienists promote and maintain oral wellness and thereby contribute to overall health and quality of life.”

Read: dental hygienist employment expected to grow

RDH tools

Tools for doing the job. An RDH uses many instruments. Here are a few standard tools and instruments used in dental hygiene.

  • Loupes – magnification devices worn over the eyes, often paired with a light
  • Dental mirror – a small, angled mirror used to see areas of the mouth that would otherwise be hidden
  • Ultrasonic instrument – a powered device that uses high-frequency vibrations to remove deposits. *
  • Hand scaler – a manual tool used to remove calculus and plaque.*
  • Polisher – a powered instrument used to remove stains, dislodge calculus and smooth tooth surfaces

*Barbara L. Bennett, RDH, of Dear Doctor magazine, notes that “Most periodontal experts today agree that the best results for non-surgical periodontal therapy are achieved by a blended approach; the combined use of power ultrasonic scalers and hand instruments.”

Tools for career building. An RDH may need to look for a job only once, at the beginning of his or her career. Most RDHs, however, seek employment many times. Some may look to an RDH temp agency to find temporary work, either for the long term or as a bridge to permanent employment. The RDH temp aged-based platform, the RDH can make more money and has more control over where and when he or she works.

How do you define your career?

Of course, an RDH cannot be defined by a dictionary entry, an accounting of tasks or a glossary of tools.  An RDH is all of these things and more. Dentists know that they need dental hygienists to keep their practices running smoothly. Patients know that RDHs are crucial to their oral care and maintenance. It’s hard to define “registered dental hygienist,” but the importance of the RDH is very clear.

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