Dental Hygienists educate patients on best oral hygiene practices and assist dentists in a variety of clinical practices.
The role of a dental hygienist is to assist in the prevention of oral health problems. They do not have a role in the surgical elements as a traditional dentist would but are active in other clinical processes. Hygienists will normally work alongside a dentist and there are normally strict rules as to what procedures a hygienist can perform.
The role of the hygienist has increased in recent years as dentistry has evolved towards more preventative practices. Hygienists will take an active role in educating patients as to the effects of diet and other life style choices on oral health.
There is a pre-prescribed NHS pay scale for dental care staff in the UK, although this system does not apply to dentists, doctors or very senior managers.
There are differing entitlements depending upon location and experience; however, you should expect to start on s salary of around £17,732 to £20,170 (data true as of 2009). Inner city London weighting will add a minimum of £3,947 and a maximum of £6,080.
Salaries in the private sector can be slightly higher.
The NHS working system is standardised and if working in the public sector you will be contracted to:
- a standard working week of 37.5 hours
- holiday entitlement of 27 days per year rising to 33 days after ten years’ service
- a full range of health benefits and defined benefit pension scheme.
Full details of the NHS Pay scale system for 2009 are available here
As a practicing hygienist you will be expected to:
- Scale teeth – this refers to the removal of plaque from the tooth and gum line
- Polish teeth
- Apply prophylactic (preventive) and antimicrobial substances
- Take dental X-rays and radiographs
- Perform pulp treatments on baby or milk teeth – this refers to any treatment of the soft ‘’pulp’’ of the teeth which makes up their core
- Perform tooth whitening and bleaching
- Replace crowns
- Apply fluorides and sealants
- Demonstrate flossing and brushing techniques.
Dental Hygienists and other dental professionals in the UK need to be registered with the General Dental Council (“GDC”) of the UK.
You will need to have 5 grade A-C GCSE’s and 2 A-levels or a recognised dental nursing qualification. Post initial studies there is a range of accredited qualifications approved by the GDC but the base qualification you will need is a Diploma in Dental Hygiene. For a full list of all the relevant qualifications click here.
The Diploma in Dental Hygiene is a full-time two year course. The approved accreditation is only offered by a small number of institutions. At time of writing these include the:
- Belfast School of Dentistry,
- Birmingham School of Dentistry,
- Bristol School of Dentistry,
- Cardiff University,
- University of Dundee Dental School,
- Glasgow Dental School,
- University of Leeds Dental Institute,
- University of Liverpool School of Dental Sciences,
- Barts and the London School of Dentistry,
- University of Manchester School of Dentistry,
- University of Newcastle School of Dental Sciences
- University of Sheffield School of Clinical Dentistry.
You should contact the GDC to ensure that a course remains accredited.
The NHS does offer a number of funded places to take the Diploma; this involves full or partial payment of all tuition fees.
The GDC also has a programme of Continual Professional Development (“CPD”), and as a dental hygienist you will be expected to complete 150 hours of CPD every five years in order to maintain eligibility to practise.
Supplementary to the qualifications detailed above, Dental Hygienists will need:
- Good eyesight
- Good manual dexterity and a steady hand
- Knowledge of how to use specialist equipment
- Strong communication skills – you will need to communicate information about oral hygiene and treatments to patients in a clear and articulate manner
- Strong interpersonal skills, including an ability to work with anxious and nervous patients.
- The ability to work well as part of a team
Most dental hygienists will work in general practice. You should expect to work standard office hours of 9-5 in this environment although you may have to assist in emergency procedures out of hours. Jobs are also available in orthodontic practices and hospitals. Hospital work can be more challenging due to the nature of the patients you are seeing. Hospital work may, depending on the hospital, also involve shift work and thus anti-social hours.
While the work environment should be clean, sterile, hygienic and well lit there are also risks involved in working in dentistry including infection and bites. There is also a high incidence of back problems associated with the dental profession.
Obtaining a place on an accredited course is difficult and it is worth speaking to a careers advisor or spending some time on work experience at a dental practice.
Most hygienists work in a general practice.
The NHS Hospital Dental Service accounts for around 10% of all dentistry jobs.
There is a range of specialist courses available to Dental Nurses and hygienists looking to progress in their career; it will, however, be difficult to become a full dentist without significant further study. The National Examining Board for Dental Nurses (“NEBDN”) offers a number of post-registration qualifications which may be of interest.
Also known as…
- Oral Health Practitioner
- Dental Care Professional (“DCP”)
What’s it really like?
Dina Abdalla, Practising Dentist and former Dental Hygienist
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I’ve been working in the dental field since 2005.
What did you do before this job?
I’m currently a practising dentist; however, I came into UK dentistry in a rather roundabout way and spent 2 years working as a hygienist, helping to educate people on oral health and assisting dentists. The reason for this is that I graduated from Ajman University of Science and Technology in Dubai with a full dentistry background; however, in order to practise in the UK I had to complete an international qualifying exam to convert to a British degree and I did this from 2002 – 2005. This course is a pre-requisite for anyone who has studied outside one of the General Dental Council’s accredited schools and I couldn’t practise in the UK without demonstrating that I had sufficient knowledge. In the interim I was keen to ensure that I kept my skills up and after speaking to the GDC was permitted to assist dentists working as a hygienist. I obviously had a solid background in all the fundamentals but I don’t think my experience is common practice. UK dentistry is heavily regulated which is both a positive and a negative.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
Working within the dental field is a consuming job. When I was a dental hygienist I would normally be up at 6am but started my working day at 8am. I worked 8-5 each day. The majority of the day was spent seeing patients. There is a distinct role between what you can do as a dentist and as a hygienist; however, a lot of dentists will spend a lot of their time doing work that can legally be performed by hygienists such as scaling, polishing and radiography (X-rays). The big difference is that hygienists can’t do anything invasive such as implants or fillings.
When I was a hygienist most of my time was spent seeing regular book patients or assisting the dentists. (Book patients will either be referred by the dentist or just be coming in for routine procedures such as cleaning, scaling or polishing). In an average day I would perform 4-5 scalings which involved specialist ultrasonic equipment, scalers or curettes to take the plaque off the tooth. I would also be expected to examine the teeth and gums and let the dentist know if anything was awry.
One of my other common tasks was fluoride treatment which involves applying gels to teeth in order to prevent caries (tooth decay). Procedures like that are largely preventative measures as ultimately most dental problems can be resolved through good oral hygiene. Teaching people how to look after their own teeth is very important.
What do you like about the job?
I always wanted to be a dentist so working as a hygienist was quite frustrating as I was simply biding my time. However, hygienists play an important role and it is a lot easier to become a hygienist. Dentistry in general is very well paid although there is a huge step up from hygienist to dentist of about £30,000 – 40,000. This is a career that you have to have a real passion for and I really couldn’t contemplate doing anything else. The other really nice thing is the trust you build up with people, whether as a hygienist or as a dentist; there is something very enjoyable about a patient specifically requesting you rather than anyone else. Being a dentist, dental nurse or hygienist is very fulfilling because at the end of the day you are helping people improve their confidence and image and reducing their pain.
What do you dislike about the job?
The dental profession is very stressful, whether you are working as a hygienist or as a dentist and within our practice we have a heavy load of patients. Something else I have noticed is that there is a lot of bureaucracy in the UK and we find that this interferes with the dentistry. In my view patients should come first but this isn’t always the case.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Any element of dentistry involves a significant time commitment and you need to make sure that this is the right profession for you. While dentistry teaches you to be very professional the technical skills that you build up aren’t particularly transferrable to any other profession.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
As a dental hygienist I couldn’t wait to practise as a dentist. I am now very happy in my current role.