Difference between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist

Difference Between a Dental Assistant & Dental Hygienist

When it comes to a dental office, there are important roles and responsibilities that are integral to the success of the business and customer satisfaction. A dental assistant and dental hygienist are two very important roles that although may be similar and are both equally essential jobs in an office, require different levels of training. Here we will break down both of these roles. 

Dental Assistant 

A dental assistant’s job is just as demanding as it is enriching. They have to take on a variety of tasks for the wellness of their patients. Their duties range from patient care and office tasks to laboratory duties and chair side assignments. A dental assistant’s main focus is to provide support and assistance to hygienists, dentists, and patients. 

As soon as the patient walks into the clinic, it’s the job of the dental assistant to make them feel as comfortable as possible. From the time they prepare them in the dental chair until the moment they walk out, the patient is the dental assistant’s responsibility.

Dental assistants typically work in private clinics. But opportunities can also be found in educational facilities, hospitals, regional health units, dental supply companies, and so on.

“Becoming a dental assistant is a fulfilling career path that allows you to help others and to learn constantly on the job. Dental assistants are in a good place to gain valuable experience through time that will open up new opportunities in the field. On top of the rewarding experience and promising growth path in this career, dental assistants also enjoy a competitive salary range and are able to establish job security. As long as dental clinics are in operation, there will always be a need (and a lucrative job market) for aspiring dental assistants” (“Skills You’ll Build in a Dental Assistant Program”). 

Tip: When applying for a dental assistant position, make sure you’re prepared with potential interview questions that the hiring manager might ask.

Day-to-day Tasks of a Dental Assistant

According to the Canadian Dental Assistants Association, there are various roles and duties of a dental assistant. A few major day-to-day tasks that dental assistants perform in a clinic/hospital setting include:

  • Ensuring patients feel comfortable throughout the dental procedure
  • Performing office management tasks which usually involve patient records
  • Obtaining dental records
  • Taking and developing radiographs (X-rays)
  • Asking patients regarding medical history
  • Taking blood pressure
  • Developing and practicing infection control protocol. This includes ensuring that the environment is clean at all times by sterilizing the equipment and instruments.
  • Informing patients about oral care after dental surgery or any other treatment
  • Providing advice to patients regarding proper oral care in order to maintain good oral health. This includes toothbrushing, mouthwash usage, flossing, and nutritional counselling.
  • Taking impressions of patient’s teeth for study casts
  • Handling patient communications, such as appointment scheduling, phone calls, billing, and supply orders

Dental Assistant Training

The first step is to complete the needed formal education through a Dental Assistant Program. This will typically take about 1 year to complete.

To get into this program, a completed high school degree with an emphasis on sciences is required. Additionally, some programs require their students to maintain a valid CPR Level C Certificate.

The most impressive part of a dental assistant career is that only 1 year of schooling and training can lead you on a path towards a $50,000 salary. Are you interested in starting your career towards that salary? Learn how through our blog post here. 

Throughout Canada, dental assisting is considered a “restricted health care occupation”. This means that though the profession is self-regulated, most provinces will require a license for their dental assistants. Meaning the individual, after completing formal education, must pass the exam given by the National Dental Assisting Examining Board (NDAEB). The mandatory skills listed in our program below are required before an individual is qualified to take this exam.

Note – To confirm if the NDAEB certificate is required for your province, you can contact the Dental Assisting Regulatory Authority.

Difference Between a Dental Assistant & Dental Hygienist

Dental Hygienist 

Dental hygienists perform similar tasks to dental assistants, but they also undertake other duties that are more advanced and require further training. 

The primary task of dental hygienists is to perform periodontal therapy which consists of assessing and recording the overall oral conditions of a patient; this is commonly called charting. They also provide scaling and root planing also referred to as teeth cleaning, and take measures for oral disease prevention.

“While proper brushing and flossing techniques are important strategies in the profession, dental hygienists are also highly educated and capable of planning and implementing oral care interventions, various client motivational and communication strategies, and both process and outcome evaluation” (ODHA).

Day-to-day Tasks of a Dental Hygienist 

Day-to-day tasks of a dental hygienist can include:

  • Removing plaque, tartar, and stains from patients’ teeth
  • Applying sealants and fluoride treatments to protect teeth from decay
  • Taking and developing dental x-rays
  • Assessing the oral health of patients and giving health reports to dentists
  • Documenting patient records and prescribed treatment plans
  • Informing patients how to select oral hygiene tools (e.g., toothbrushes and floss)
  • Educating patients on proper brushing and flossing methods

Dental Hygienist Training 

In order to begin a career as a dental hygienist, you must have a diploma or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from a college or university accredited by The Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada. This process can take 2-4 years to complete, differing from dental assistants who need 1 year of training. 

Hygienists must also be registered with the dental hygiene authority of their province or territory. Once registered and practicing, most authorities require dental hygienists to successfully complete a number of professional development programs each year to maintain their license and stay up-to-date with the latest practices and regulations. 

“With more than 20,000 practitioners in Canada, dental hygienists make up the sixth-largest regulated health profession in the country. While dental clinics are the most frequent career landing spot, dental hygienists are able to work in a variety of other fields, including sales and marketing, labs and research, community health, education, and more” (ODHA).

Cestar’s Dental Assistant Program

At Cestar College, our Dental Assistant Program offers 2 levels (Level I and II) of certification in just 1 year of study. Each Intra-Oral Level prepares you for a different aspect of working in a dental office:

Level I 

Cestar’s  Level I program prepares students for a range of basic dental tasks through comprehensive foundational training that covers dental assisting fundamentals, dental record keeping, job-relevant laboratory procedures, and additional necessary skills and knowledge.

Level II 

With Cestar’s Level II program, aspiring learners are given hands-on formal training on key dental areas such as exposing dental radiographs, selective coronal polishing, applying and removing dental dams – all in accordance with NDAEB guidelines.

The following mandatory skills will be covered in the training program:

  • Chairside dental assisting
  • Expose dental radiographs
  • Oral hygiene instruction
  • Dietary counselling relative to oral health
  • Selective coronal polishing
  • Applies and removes dental dam
  • Takes preliminary impressions
  • Applies treatment liner
  • Applies and removes matrix and wedge
  • Applies fluoride
  • Applies pit and fissure sealant
  • Applies desensitizing agents
  • Applies topical anesthetic
  • Performs tooth whitening using trays

During this accelerated program, you will learn even more vital skills that will give you a leading edge as you enter this rewarding profession. Learn more about the interpersonal, administrative, and organizational skills you’ll develop in this program through our blog post here

Which Career Is Right for You?

Overall, both dental assistants and dental hygienists are rewarding medical professions that allow you to better the health of your patients and sustain a fulfilling career. Although their duties may overlap, the training requirements are the true differentiating factor. 

Becoming a hygienist not only provides you with the skills and knowledge in 2-4 years to be an expert in your field, but it opens up many avenues for building your long-term future in the dental field. 

However, if you have a high school diploma, are interested in an excellent and stable career with a great salary, and want to get there in just 1 year, then becoming a dental assistant is the perfect path for you. If you live in Toronto or the surrounding areas and are interested in becoming a dental assistant, check out Cestar College’s Dental Assistant Program. 

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