Get to know this longtime licensed profession
Among the friendly faces at your local dental office, dental hygienists are there to provide you with direct preventative dental care, assistance, and education. And with more than 30,000 licensed dental hygienists in California, they’re all ready to help keep you smiling.
AN EDUCATIONAL ROLE
But there may never have been a dental hygienist profession in California or anywhere else without one person: Dr. Alfred Fones. According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, Dr. Fones—a Connecticut dentist—decided to train his chairside assistant, Irene Newman, to do children’s teeth cleanings and other preventative treatments. He even went so far as to make teaching aids and models out of teeth extracted in his practice to help Newman’s training. Newman proved an excellent student, going on to perform oral prophylaxis—the formal term for teeth cleanings—in public to educate and engage audiences on the importance of oral health to overall well-being. She later became the first president of the Connecticut Dental Hygienists Association.
“It is primarily to this important work of public education that the dental hygienist is called,” said Fones, who also coined the term “dental hygienist” and started the first school for dental hygienists in 1913. His school’s first graduates were hired to work with and educate children in local school districts, where they were credited with reducing students’ tooth decay and cavities by 75 percent.
As Fones envisioned more than a century ago, education still plays a major role in dental hygienists’ day-to-day work. In addition to vital daily duties including cleaning teeth; applying protective sealants and fluorides, taking and developing dental X-rays, assessing patients’ oral health, reporting findings to dentists, and documenting care and treatment plans, dental hygienists educate patients about proper oral hygiene techniques. Dental hygienists talk to patients about ways to keep their teeth and gums healthy, such as explaining the relationship between diet and oral health, which have a significant effect on a person’s overall health, or advising patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral care devices.
AN IN-DEMAND LICENSE
Individuals with dental hygienist licensure can look forward to an in-demand career: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes dental hygienists’ employment is expected to grow 11 percent between 2018 and 2028—much faster than the average for other occupations.
It’s no surprise that Connecticut—with its dental hygienist history—also quickly became the first state to license and regulate this profession. Today, all states require professional licensure, although requirements vary from state to state.
Some licensure requirements to become a registered dental hygienist in California include:
- Graduation from a Board approved and Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredited California dental hygienist school and passing the Western Regional Examination Board exam.
- Graduation from a Board approved and CODA accredited California dental hygienist school and passing the Central Regional Testing Services exam.
- Applying for California licensure after being licensed in another state for five years or more through the Licensure By Credential pathway.
What’s more, there are three different types of dental hygienist licensure overseen by the Dental Hygiene Board of California (DHBC):
- Registered dental hygienist (RDH)—An RDH, under the direct or general supervision of a dentist depending on the procedure, may provide dental hygiene assessment and development, planning and implementation of a dental hygiene care plan that includes oral health education, counseling and health screenings.
- Registered dental hygienist in alternative practice (RDHAP)—An RDHAP can perform the functions of an RDH with the unique distinction of being able to work for a dentist or as an employee of another RDHAP as an independent contractor, as a sole proprietor of an alternative hygiene practice, or in other locations such as residences of the homebound, schools, residential facilities, and other institutions, and in areas with a shortage of dental health professionals. A RDHAP can operate a mobile dental clinic or operate an independent office in areas of the state with an identified dental shortage.
- Registered dental hygienist in extended functions (RDHEF)—An RDHEF can perform the same functions as an RDH but also has completed additional clinical training, namely more advanced restorative dental techniques and duties.
The Dental Hygiene Board of California is the first and only state government agency in the country to specifically oversee the dental hygiene profession and educational programs exclusively in the interest of consumer protection. The responsibilities of DHBC include issuing, reviewing, and enforcing dental hygiene licenses as well as developing the Law and Ethics examinations. Additional functions include promulgating regulations, establishing and maintaining fees, oversight and approval of dental hygiene educational programs, and continuing education requirements for all dental hygiene licensure categories. The DHBC’s primary mission is to protect the public and meet the oral hygiene needs of all Californians.