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What is the Difference between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?

Schooling Requirements, Salary, and Job Duties Differentiate Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists, and Dentists in Wisconsin

Dental Hygienist SalaryMany people who visit the dentist’s office could not tell you which workers are dental assistants and which are dental hygienists, but there is a difference. Each dental profession requires different education and involves different responsibilities.

Understanding the differences between dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dentists will help you decide which career path to follow. Our Wisconsin dental assistant school completely prepares you for a career as a dental assistant or provides a strong foundation to become a dental hygienist, dentist, or other dental health professional. Apply now for our dental assistance program near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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Education Requirements for Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists, and Dentists

The schooling requirements for each level of dental professional differ state to state. According to the DALE Foundation (founded by the Dental Assisting National Board, or DANB), Wisconsin dental assistant requirements allow unlicensed but trained dental assistants to perform x-rays, radiography, and certain supportive dental procedures when supervised by a licensed dentist. In general, dental assistants could be trained on the job, but most dentists want to hire a person who has a dental assisting education. Dental assistants can be educated in an accelerated program like our 10 week dental assistant school or at a longer term school with pre-requisite courses.

Dental hygienists must generally have an associate’s degree (bachelor’s and master’s degree programs allow for further education and career advancement). While earning a degree such as an Associate of Applied Science in dental hygiene, students may take courses on oral pathology, radiology, periodontics, pain management, infection control, and more.

Dentists must first have a bachelor’s degree before going to dental school. Many undergrads planning to go to dental school study biology, anatomy, chemistry, and microbiology. To get into dental school, students must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) and submit their scores when they apply. Dental colleges offer doctoral degrees for Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). Specialty areas of study, such as pediatric dentistry, orthodontics, oral surgery, and maxillofacial surgery, are also available and may include a residency.

Licensing Requirements for Dental Professions 

While dental assistants in Wisconsin do not need any kind of license, all states require dental hygienists and dentists to be licensed. Dental school and dental hygiene school graduates must pass state examinations, subject to board review, in order to obtain a license.

Salary Difference: How Much Do Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists, and Dentists Make?

Dental Assistant Jobs

Annual salaries for any profession vary depending on education, experience, time working at the company, location, and any number of other factors. Average salaries also change year to year, making it hard to pinpoint an accurate number.

According to 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assistants earn a median annual salary of $35,390, or $17.02 per hour. Dental hygienists earn a median salary of $71,520 per year, or $34.38 hourly wage. Dentists earn a median salary of $154,640, or $74.34 an hour (salary varies between general dentists and specialized dentists).

Job Duties and Responsibilities

The less obvious differences between a dental assistant and dental hygienist lie in the tasks each performs.  A dental assistant’s duties include:

  • Sterilizing and disinfecting procedures
  • Treatment room preparation   
  • Assisting the dentist with 4-handed chairside dentistry
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Handling the needle and syringe
  • Suction and tissue retraction
  • Taking impressions and doing the pour up of impressions
  • Taking and processing bitewings
  • Full mouth series x-rays
  • Panoramic x-ray
  • Assisting the dentist with the maintenance of patient records
  • Giving post-operative patient instructions after dental procedures

Dental Assistants can also perform other duties such as assisting with front desk duties, plus managing and ordering dental supplies. A dental assistant will work under the direct supervision of the dentist.

Difference Between Dental Assistant and HygienistDental hygienists’ tasks are different because they will usually work one-on-one with patients. Dental hygienists’ duties include:

  • Cleaning and polishing the teeth of patients
  • Removing hard and soft deposits, calculus, plaque, and stains from a patient’s teeth surfaces
  • Performing periodontal procedures to treat gum disease
  • Taking impressions of patient teeth
  • Applying fluorides
  • Charting dental conditions of patients
  • Collecting information on the patient’s oral and medical health history

In Wisconsin, dental hygienists can also become licensed to administer local anesthetic.

Dentists examine, diagnose, and treat problems with the teeth, gums, and other parts of the mouth. Other duties include advising and instructing patients on oral hygiene and diet for good oral health.

How to Choose the Career Path Right for You

It is important to know the difference between a dental assistant, dental hygienist, and dentist when choosing your career path. While dental hygienists do make more money, they also spend considerably more for schooling, have a very high responsibility working directly on patients, and have to be licensed. You do not need a license in Wisconsin to be a dental assistant. If you want to become a dentist, both careers will help you achieve your goal. If you want a stable career fast, becoming a dental assistant may just be the perfect job for you.

Wisconsin Dental Assistant School Application

View our Fox Valley job placement successes to learn about how our 10 Saturday program gets our students hired as dental assistants shortly after graduating.