Dental hygienists play an important role within the dental healthcare team, covering both clinical and health promotion responsibilities

As a dental hygienist, you'll educate and motivate patients in the care of teeth and gums, provide treatments to prevent oral problems and offer oral hygiene and dietary advice.

You can work in a variety of settings, such as general dental practices, hospitals, within the community or independently. Patients can range from young children to the elderly with a variety of dental care needs.

Responsibilities

As a dental hygienist, you'll need to:

  • provide dental advice on dental hygiene care and oral health education to patients of all ages
  • work closely with the dental team to treat and help patients in preventing gum disease
  • use a range of dental instruments to clean, polish and scale teeth
  • apply treatments to reduce decay
  • ensure that dental instruments are sterilised appropriately
  • take impressions and radiographs (x-rays) of teeth
  • give local anaesthetic
  • apply fissure sealants to protect teeth
  • apply temporary dressings to protect a broken tooth or replace a lost filling
  • encourage and demonstrate tooth brushing and cleaning in-between teeth
  • sterilise dental equipment
  • show care and compassion for patients and put them at the centre of care
  • collect medical and dental histories and maintain patients' health records
  • work to a professional code of ethics and keep up to date with new developments within the profession.

Dental hygienists are able to carry out treatment direct to patients or following a prescription (instructions) from a dentist. Newly qualified dental hygienists are advised to work following a prescription from a dentist for at least one year before carrying out treatment direct to patients, either as part of a dental team in a dental practice or independently.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for dental hygienists working in the NHS are typically between £24,907 and £30,615, which is band 5 of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates.
  • Specialist dental hygienists can earn between £31,365 and £37,890 (band 6). Experienced hygienists with training responsibilities may be able to earn up to £44,503 (band 7).
  • Hourly rates can range from around £16.56 to £31.18 per hour.

Salaries vary depending on a range of factors, including your experience, location, type of employer (i.e. private or NHS) and whether you're employed directly by a practice or self-employed.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work 37.5 hours per week, 8.30am to 5.00pm. You may sometimes need to work in the evenings and at weekends, depending on your employer.

If you're working in a hospital, you may have to be on call during weekends, or work shifts.

If you're working for a community dental service, flexibility may also be required.

Often dental hygienists work in multiple settings during their working week, either in more than one dental practice, hospital or community dental service.

What to expect

  • You'll work as part of a dental healthcare team, including dentists, dental nurses and dental therapists.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK in cities, towns and rural areas.
  • You're required to wear safety glasses, a face mask and gloves to protect yourself and patients from infectious diseases.
  • Eye strain and neck and back fatigue can be an issue, due to the repetitive nature of some of the work.
  • You won't normally have to travel during the day or stay away from home overnight. There are opportunities for experienced dental hygienists to work overseas.

Qualifications

To work as a dental hygienist, you must be registered with the General Dental Council (GDC). In order to do this, you must complete one of the following qualifications approved by the GDC:

  • three-year degree in oral health science (four years at the University of Edinburgh), dental hygiene or dental hygiene and therapy
  • two-year diploma of higher education in dental hygiene (or 27 months if the course covers dental hygiene and therapy)
  • two-year foundation degree in oral health science.

All courses are full time. See the British Society of Dental Hygiene & Therapy (BSDHT) website for a list of GDC-approved courses.

If you've completed an integrated degree or diploma in both dental hygiene and therapy, upon registration you can work as both a dental hygienist and dental therapist.

To be eligible for a place on a degree you'll need three A-levels, one of which should be in biology or human biology, as well as GCSEs in maths and English. Applicants for the foundation degree or diploma will usually need two A-levels.

A nationally recognised dental nursing qualification can sometimes take the place of an A-level.

Some institutions welcome graduates with a minimum 2:2 or above in a science or healthcare subject. Entry criteria vary, so check with individual institutions for exact requirements.

You'll need to complete a successful Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check before admission to a training programme in England and Wales (or equivalent check for Scotland). For some courses you'll also have to undergo a health check carried out by the university's occupational health service. When applying for GDC registration, you must declare any issues that may affect your fitness to practise.

All pre-registration dental hygienist students on an eligible course in England (level 5 and 6) can receive non-repayable funding support of at least £5,000 per year towards their studies. For full details, see the NHS Learning Support Fund.

Details of financial support for students studying in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are available from:

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills, to explain treatments to patients in a calm and reassuring manner and advise them on how to keep their teeth and gums healthy
  • effective listening and motivational skills, to educate patients to maintain healthy oral hygiene and diet
  • the ability to work well in a team, as well as independently
  • a caring quality and an interest in helping people
  • compassion while interacting with patients of all ages
  • excellent manual dexterity and confidence in handling dental equipment
  • good eyesight and steady hands for carrying out precise dental work
  • the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time
  • good written communication skills to complete and keep safe records of patients
  • a friendly, confident and professional manner, that will help you interact with patients and colleagues effectively.

Work experience

To get a place on a course, you'll usually need to be familiar with the role of a dental hygienist and show an awareness of the profession. Try contacting your local dental surgery to see if you can work shadow a dental hygienist to get a feel for the work. Work as a dental nurse may also be useful.

Courses include a mix of academic study and clinical work, so you'll build up practical work experience for when you graduate and start looking for a job.

Employers

Typical employers of dental hygienists include:

  • general dental practices - the majority of qualified dental hygienists work full or part time in dental practices providing NHS or private treatment to patients
  • community dental services - ensuring that everyone has access to dental care. You could be working in hospitals, specialist health centres and mobile clinics, as well as making home visits or visits to nursing and care homes
  • dental hospitals - dental hygienists work as part of many different teams that cover all aspects of dental care from children's dentistry, orthodontics to complex treatments and oral surgery
  • private companies in industry - providing dental care to employees
  • defence dental services - at locations in the UK or overseas with the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

Look for vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as DentalElite also advertise full and part-time vacancies.

Professional development

Once qualified, you'll need to continue developing your skills and keeping your knowledge up to date. Undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of maintaining your registration with the GDC and you'll have to spend at least 75 hours over a five-year period engaged in CPD activities relevant to your practice.

Typical activities can include:

  • involvement in lectures and courses
  • attending hands-on clinical training or workshops
  • attending or presenting at conferences
  • participation in clinical audit or peer review.

The BSDHT provides a range of CPD events and an annual conference. Membership also provides access to networking opportunities via regional group study days and networks, resources and advice.

It's possible to do further study at Masters level in a subject related to dental hygiene, such as dental public health. Search dental postgraduate courses.

Career prospects

Once qualified, you'll work as a dental hygienist, gaining experience in the role. However, if you completed an integrated degree, combining both dental hygiene and therapy, you can choose to work as a dental therapist.

Job prospects are generally good. With an ageing population, for example, oral health and related health problems are a growing issue, meaning that dental health professionals are in demand.

With experience, there are some opportunities to move into a dental practice management role. In this role, you'll support the dentist and have responsibility for the running of the office.

It may be possible with further qualifications and training to move away from direct patient care into teaching the next generation of dental hygiene or dental therapy students. Roles in research are also available.

You could also move into a related area like orthodontic therapy, public health or work as a health improvement practitioner.

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