What is the difference between dental assistant, dental hygienist and dental therapist?

February 11, 2020

What is the difference between dental assistant, dental hygienist and dental therapist?
What is the difference between dental assistant, dental hygienist and dental therapist?

Because dental assistants, hygienists, and therapists can perform many of the same day-to-day tasks it is difficult for someone not familiar with the positions to tell them apart. Though these industry titles and roles are similar, they are not interchangeable. Here are brief descriptions of each position and some of the key differences to note:


Dental Assistant

This dental support position provides direct aid to the dentist and the administration. They perform office tasks as well as some small, supervised tasks on patients’ teeth. Most states require some schooling from an accredited dental assisting program (nine months to a year) as well as a license or dental assistant certification. The average annual salary for a dental assistant is about $37,000. Most dental professionals become a dental assistant for base training before furthering their education to become a hygienist or therapist.

Typical duties of a dental assistant include:

• Disinfecting the equipment
• Sterilizing and laying out instruments
• Obtaining dental records for patients
• Preparing patients for treatment
• Preparing x-ray machines and taking images
• Handing the dentist instruments during procedures
• Instructing patients in oral care
• Aiding in office management with record-keeping and billing


Dental Hygienist

A hygienist has a less supervised role and often works one-on-one with patients. Dental hygienists are most often concerned with preventative dental health and the treatment of the early stages of gum disease. Education requirements vary by state. Hygienists generally have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene (three to four years) and all hygienists must pass a licensure exam. The average annual salary for a hygienist is about $72,000.

Typical duties of a dental hygienist include:

• Collecting and assessing information about patients’ oral health and medical history for the dentist
• Taking and processing x-rays
• Examining teeth and gums
Cleaning teeth
Removing hard and soft deposits from teeth including tartar, plaque, and stains
Applying sealants and fluoride treatments
• Educating and advising patients on oral care
• Charting dental conditions for the dentist
• Recording patient treatments and care plans


Dental Therapist

Dental therapy is a relatively new field. Dental therapists provide both clinical and therapeutic care. A dental therapist can do all the work a hygienist does, but can also perform duties beyond the role of a hygienist. They can carry out more advanced dental procedures on primary teeth as long as the nerve of the tooth does not require treatment. They can also perform more advanced procedures with some degree of supervision from a dentist. Children often receive priority preference from dental therapists. These dental professionals also typically help work with uninsured, low-income, or underserved populations. Education requirements usually include extra training in addition to that of a hygienist, but not to the extent of a dentist. The average salary for a dental therapist can range from $53,000 to $87,000.

Typical duties include:

• Prepare patient for oral procedures
• Place local anesthesia or dispense nitrous oxide
• Cleaning the area to prepare for a filling
• Placing small fillings
• Placing crowns on primary teeth
• Extracting primary teeth
• Removing stitches when a patient heals

Not all dental offices will have dental assistants, hygienists, and dental therapists. But those that do require the individuals in these positions to work in tandem to keep the dental office running smoothly.


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