Dear inquisitive hygienist minds as well as current and future patients,
Throughout the years, I have been humorously entertained during many conversations about the dental hygiene profession. I have even been questioned personally about my credentials. I feel the need to help lay your curiosity to rest. Better yet, I hope to help you feel more confident in your dental hygienist’s abilities to treat you.
Shall we start at the beginning?
Before applying to an accredited dental hygiene program, candidates must first fulfill a set of requirements. No applicant shall be considered without first completing a list of required college courses. Depending on if the desired dental hygiene program is an associate’s or bachelor’s will dictate the prerequisites required. An associate’s degree will require an average of 33 general education credits, while a bachelor’s degree will require 42 credits in communication, humanities and fine arts, social and behavior sciences, history, natural sciences, and mathematics categories. Depending on the program, applicants may be required to maintain a GPA as high as 3.0.
Different dental hygiene programs have variations on the course requirements. The following is an example of required general education courses that prospective applicants must complete: Two semesters of college composition, two semesters of human anatomy and physiology, one semester of medical microbiology, one semester of oral communications, one semester of general psychology, one semester of applied math, one semester of probability and statistics, introductory courses for sociology, chemistry, microbiology, and one semester on the principles of nutrition science.
And so, it begins…
Once accepted into the dental hygiene program, students will complete a vigorous curriculum over the course of several years. Since dental hygienists can complete one of two degrees, you may be left wondering if a dental hygienist with an associate’s degree is as qualified as one with a bachelor’s degree.
The dental hygiene career has continually advanced since the first two-year associate’s program in 1945. Many courses have been added to the curriculum. However, those obtaining an associate’s in dental hygiene are actually completing 49 more credits than required for an associate’s degree. Research shows that an associate’s dental hygiene degree is only 11 credit hours less than a bachelor’s and actually constitutes as the equivalent of three to five years of college.1 Therefore, it should be noted that dental hygienists graduating from an associate’s program are just as qualified as those who obtain a bachelor’s, considering the comparison of credit hours completed.
The following is a list of the required classes for both an associate’s and bachelor’s dental hygiene program:
- DHYG 2020 – Dental Anatomy and Histology (3 credits)
- DHYG 2030 – Pre-Clinical Dental Hygiene Lecture (3 credits)
- DHYG 2031 – Pre-Clinical Laboratory (3 credits)
- DHYG 2040 – Dental Office Emergencies (2 credits)
- DHYG 2050 – Occupational Safety for Dental Health Care Workers (1 credit)
- DHYG 2060 – Introduction to Dental Hygiene (1 credit)
- DHYG 2130 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Seminar I (1 credit)
- DHYG 2131 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Practice I (4 credits)
- DHYG 2160 – Periodontology (3 credits)
- DHYG 2170 – Dental Radiology (3 credits)
- DHYG 2171 – Dental Radiology Laboratory (1 credit)
- DHYG 3010 – Head and Neck Anatomy (2 credits)
- DHYG 3020 – General and Oral Pathology (3 credits)
- DHYG 3030 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Seminar II (2 credits)
- DHYG 3031 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Practice II (4 credits)
- DHYG 3110 – Dental Materials (2 credits)
- DHYG 3111 – Dental Materials Laboratory (1 credit)
- DHYG 3120 – Pharmacology for Dental Hygiene (3 credits)
- DHYG 3130 – Community Dental Health (3 credits)
- DHYG 3200 – Issues in Dental Hygiene (1 credit)
- DHYG 4000 – Dental Radiographic Interpretation (1 credit)
- DHYG 4010 – Teaching Strategies for Allied Health (3 credits)
- DHYG 4020 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Seminar III (1 credit)
- DHYG 4021 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Practice III (4 credits)
- DHYG 4030 – Anesthesia and Pain Control (1 credit)
- DHYG 4031 – Local Anesthesia Lab (1 credit)
- DHYG 4110 – Supportive Periodontal Therapy (3 credits)
- DHYG 4120 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Seminar IV (1 credit)
- DHYG 4121 – Dental Hygiene Clinical Practice IV (4 credits)
- DHYG 4130 – Geriatric Dental Hygiene (2 credits)
- DHYG 4141 – Community and Rural Dental Health (1 credit)
During the program, students not only complete vigorous course materials, but they will obtain hands-on skill training to help perfect their clinical skills, including dental radiographs. In 44 U.S. states, dental hygienists are permitted to administer local anesthesia after completing an accredited course.
Upon successful completion of the program, students must pass three forms of testing in order to obtain licensure. Regional board exams test the clinical skills of the student dental hygienist. Those wishing to practice outside of their region must retake the exam where they wish to practice.
The national dental hygiene board exam is a 9-hour written exam that assesses the ability to understand important information related to basic biomedical and dental hygiene sciences as well as the ability to apply the information in a problem-solving context.
Lastly, a jurisprudence exam must be taken to test the knowledge of the student’s state laws and rules in regard to the dental hygiene profession. After successful completion of all three exams, dental hygienists will obtain licensure to practice professionally. This is what allows the three-letter acronym to follow our names in official communication. We have earned the right to be an RDH (registered dental hygienist).
Some states also require a written and clinical exam for the administration of local anesthesia. If permitted in their state, dental hygienists can also obtain certification to practice limited restorative duties, such as placing and carving filling materials. States that allow restorative dental hygiene may require a clinical and written exam for this endorsement/permit as well.
But wait, there’s more…
In order to maintain licensure, dental hygienists must recertify every one to three years depending on state statutes and laws with South Dakota being the only state that recertifies every five years. To obtain re-licensure, dental hygienists are required to fulfill a set amount of continuing education (CE) requirements according to their practicing state’s laws. The required number of CEs is dependent upon the licensing state. Arizona requires as much as 54 CE hours over the span of their three-year re-licensure period. All states have specific guidelines on how those hours are obtained and what courses must be included. All dental professionals, including dental hygienists, must always maintain a current CPR/BLS (basic life support) certification while practicing. This must be renewed every two years.
The dental hygiene career field is well-diversified and highly educated. While many choose to practice in a clinical setting, many others branch out into other various dental career opportunities. Other careers for dental hygienists involve designing dental instruments and products, opening dental businesses (such as instrument sharpening), becoming published authors and certified speakers, obtaining ambassadorship with dental companies, working as dental sales representatives, and returning to campuses as educators for future dental professionals.
The door doesn’t close on dental hygienists, who are persistently and continually advancing in the professional world. While a dental hygienist is armed with ample education and credentials, we are so much more than that. We are focus-driven, oral hygiene educators who often become “therapists” during the dental appointment but always have a lending ear to listen and reciprocate with encouraging advice when patients feel the need to discuss their lives.
Hopefully, after reading this, you will feel confident in the skills and knowledge that your dental hygienist has to offer. Please rest assured that a dental hygienist does indeed require a college degree despite what you may read or hear. We are more than just “the cleaning lady” and do more than “scrape on teeth.” We are qualified dental professionals making a difference one smile at a time.
Your Dental Hygienist
- O’Hehir, T. Dental Hygiene Education Exceeds the Degrees Granted: A Pilot Study. International Journal of Dental Hygiene. Aug 2018; 16(3): 340-348. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/idh.12335