What is a Dental Hygiene Degree?

Degree programs in dental hygiene prepare students for a career as a dental hygienist. Students learn how to examine patients for tooth decay and oral diseases, take x-rays, clean teeth, apply fluoride treatments, educate patients how to care for their teeth and gums, and assist dentists with restorative procedures.

The dental hygiene curriculum focuses on subjects like dental anatomy, periodontics (the supporting structures of teeth), microbiology, pathology (disease), dental pharmacology, and nutrition. Clinical practice is central to the curriculum.

Program Options

Note: It is important to choose a degree program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Completing an accredited curriculum prepares students for licensing as a dental hygienist, which is required in all US states.

Certificate in Dental Hygiene – One Year to Eighteen Month Duration
Certificate programs teach only subjects in the major. They are focused exclusively on the various aspects of the dental hygienist’s job.

Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene – Two Year Duration
This is the most common credential held by practising dental hygienists. Dental hygiene associate programs typically combine courses in the major with some liberal arts classes in subjects such as English literature and composition, math, and the social sciences. Associate programs in the field also provide more extensive clinical practicums than certificate programs.

Despite the differences described above, dental hygiene courses like the following are at the heart of both of these programs:

  • Principles of Microbiology for Dental Hygiene – microbiology with an emphasis on human oral health, biofilms (such as dental plaque) in relation to health and disease, the relationship between microorganisms and infection control
  • Head and Neck Anatomy – the anatomical and physiological features of the head and neck including oral and teeth anatomy
  • Dental Anatomy – crown and root anatomy, identifying and differentiating between teeth, the way the teeth meet when the lower jaw and upper jaw come together
  • Professional Practice I – roles and responsibilities of the dental hygienist; medical, legal, ethical principles; health promotion
  • Clinical Theory I – assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation; best practices in clinical health and safety
  • Clinical Practice I – supervised practice in a clinical setting
  • General Pathophysiology – fundamentals of human pathophysiology (the disordered physiological processes associated with disease or injury) with emphasis on disease related to dental hygiene
  • Oral Sciences I – development and oral histology (microscopic anatomy) of the soft and hard tissues of the mouth and associated structures, conditions related to tooth decay and other tooth abnormalities
  • Introduction to Periodontology – periodontal diseases, therapy for plaque-induced gingival diseases and chronic periodontitis (chronic inflammatory gum disease triggered by bacteria)
  • Radiology – principles of x-ray, radiation biology, radiation safety, producing superior radiographic images, interpreting radiographic images, legal and ethical issues
  • Professional Practice II – evidence-based decision making, workplace communication, cultural awareness, assessing published professional and scientific information
  • Clinical Theory II – providing clinical services to a diverse population of clients
  • Clinical Practice II – further supervised practice in a clinical setting
  • Pharmacology – pain control drugs and techniques used in dentistry, other drugs and drug-related issues
  • Oral Sciences II – advanced topics in periodontology and oral pathology, risk factors, post-treatment healing, recognizing common oral lesions
  • Clinical Theory III – integrating clinical theory, professional practice, and dental science into care planning
  • Clinical Practice III – applying clinical theory to clinical practice with clients of various ages and with complex dental problems
  • Community Oral Health I – community oral health issues, the oral health of various groups
  • Oral Sciences III – examination of various gingival and periodontal diseases, diagnostic techniques, therapeutic interventions, oral surgery, oral cancer
  • Nutrition – the science of nutrients, the relationship between nutrition and oral health, communicating the importance of proper nutrition to clients
  • Professional Practice III – preparation to enter practice, professional issues, professional dental associations
  • Clinical Theory IV – providing dental hygiene care to clients with special needs; issues, challenges, and solutions associated with dental office practice
  • Clinical Practice IV – student clinicians provide comprehensive dental hygiene care to clients during rotations to various practice settings
  • Community Oral Health II – advocacy, health literacy, oral health trends, dental public health

Degrees Similar to Dental Hygiene

Clinical Laboratory Science
Degree programs in clinical laboratory science prepare students to work as laboratory technicians, who use chemicals and other substances to test body fluids and tissues for the purpose of diagnosing diseases. The curriculum combines chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Clinical Medical Assisting
This degree program prepares students to work as assistants to medical doctors. The typical curriculum covers medical terminology, medical office administration, insurance, and medical software. As the role of medical assistant may involve some basic clinical tasks, students also learn the fundamentals of human disease, disease diagnosis, and medications.

Dental Laboratory Technology
Dental laboratory technicians work behind the scenes and have limited, often no contact with patients. They make crowns, bridges, ceramics, dentures, implants, and braces that are prescribed by dentists.

Students of dental laboratory technology learn all aspects of the art and science of crafting these restorative devices, known as dental prostheses. They learn in the classroom, in the teaching lab, and in real-world labs. Programs begin with core classes in functional anatomy – the study of bodily structure as it relates to function – and head and neck anatomy.

Foods, Nutrition and Wellness Studies
Foods, nutrition, and wellness studies programs teach students about food and its effect on human health and wellbeing. The curriculum covers nutritional science, food composition, food safety, exercise science, and lifestyle management.

Physician Assistant
This program prepares students to work as a physician assistant or PA. Under the supervision of a physician, PAs take medical histories, conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, and provide preventative healthcare. They may also assist in surgery and conduct research.

There is no distinct pre-dentistry degree. ‘Pre-dentistry’ or is merely a term that students planning to go to dental school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring dentists enter dental school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-dental student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to dental school.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Surgical Technology
Surgical technology certificate and degree programs teach students how to be effective members of operating room teams. Students learn how to equip operating rooms for specific procedures, how to prepare patients for surgery, how to sterilize surgical instruments, and how to assist doctors, nurses, and patients. Coursework includes anatomy and physiology, surgical patient care, and health law and ethics.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to their specific technical skills, dental hygiene grads leave their studies with valuable transferable skills:

  • Attention to Detail – working on patients’ teeth and gums calls for focused attention
  • Communication – talking to patients is a significant part of the dental hygienist’s job
  • Empathy and interpersonal skills – establishing rapport with patients, especially those who are anxious or in pain, is key
  • Hand-eye coordination and Manual Dexterity – manipulating instruments, tools, and other materials inside a patient’s mouth work is precise and delicate work
  • Problem-solving – dental hygiene students learn to manage various kinds of challenges that arise in the dental office, from dealing with patients with a very low pain threshold to cleaning the teeth of patients who cannot open their mouth very wide
  • Teamwork – dental hygienists are part of a dental healthcare team
  • Technology skills – dental hygiene students learn how to use the field’s evolving technology

What Can You Do with a Dental Hygiene Degree?

Clinical Dental Hygienist
The most common workplace for dental hygienists is a dental office, where they work alongside a dentist.

Clinical Independent Practice
Operating a fully independent dental hygiene practice is not common. However, it is not uncommon for dental hygienists to make their services available on a contractual or on-call basis to multiple dental practices as well as to hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes. This option, of course, offers greater professional variety, flexibility, and freedom.

Public Health
Dental hygienists who work in public health work in the community. They provide oral health assessments and preventative services and develop and present oral health education programs.

Employment opportunities for dental hygienists may exist with companies that sell dental products and supplies, pharmaceutical companies, and dental insurance providers.

Product Development and Distribution
Dental laboratories and manufacturers present employment options in the areas of product development and testing and industry training.

Education and Research
While these roles typically require further education, dental hygiene grads have the foundational skills to consider working as an instructor in a dental hygiene program, or as a researcher developing new procedures and tools for the field.


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