A Day in the Life of a Dental Hygienist
Working as a dental hygienist can be a rewarding experience, but what if you’re not sure that experience is right for you? The best way to get a feel for working as a dental hygienist, without leaping to obtain your certification, is to see what a dental hygienist does on a typical day.
Before Work Begins
Before you pull on a pair of dental gloves to begin your first cleaning of the day, you’ll first need to follow the office policies in place to track your work.
Every dental practice has its own set of rules around tracking your attendance. Some offices require you to log on to their computer-based tracking system, or you may need to sign in on a timesheet. Regardless of how the time is tracked, time tracking ensures you’re following the attendance rules for the office and provides proof for you that you’re putting in the hours and should be paid what you’re owed.
The office manager or dentist may want to have a quick meeting with all staff before the day begins. If you’re not fond of meetings, there’s good news here because the meeting has to be done by the time the first patient shows up, so they are typically short and to the point.
If you’re in a small practice without a lot of administrative staff buzzing around to assist with preparation, this is a quick rundown of the types of activities you may have to perform to get your area ready for the first patient of the day.
Beyond manual instruments, the modern dental office has at least one or more computer workstations and electric devices. A dental hygienist would power up all the devices needed for that day to make sure everything is in working order before bringing the first patient back.
Review the Day’s Appointments for Equipment Needs
Not all appointments are created equal. On any given day, the dental hygienist may do all cleanings or a mix of cleanings and X-Rays or perhaps taking teeth molds for a young student’s sportsguard. Is the next appointment an in-office visit or a teledentistry visit? Each appointment type needs its own equipment, so a dental hygienist will take out the equipment needed at the start of the day to save time later.
Review Patient Charts for History
Does your third patient of the day have a history of smoking? Does your second patient of the day have braces? The smart dental hygienist will quickly read through the history of scheduled patients to know if special considerations will be needed. Does Mrs. Rodriguez only speak Spanish, so you know you’ll need a translator for the home care instructions? Does Mr. Finnegan have a bad neck curvature, so you know you’ll need an extra pad for the headrest on the dentist’s chair? Anything you can glean from the records will ensure your day goes smoothly.
Check and Fill the Water Containers
Patient cleanings use water. Lots and lots of water. A dental hygienist will ensure the dental unit’s water container is clean from yesterday’s usage and then filled up for today’s usage. Nobody wants to have their cleaning interrupted because the water container ran dry in the middle of the cleaning.
Lay Out Patient Trays
Do you have enough floss for the next cleaning? Do you have steralized tools and curette within easy reach? The dental hygienist will take a quick inventory of all the needed instruments to make sure the right tools for the right job are sterilized and nearby on the patient tray.
Ultrasonic Sterilization Bath
In between appointments, a dental hygienist will need to swap out used instruments for freshly cleaned ones. While a used instrument is waiting to be processed in an autoclave, it’s normal to have the used instruments remain in an ultrasonic sterilization bath to remove particles from the patient’s mouth and kill off any germs. Setting up a sterilization bath isn’t complicated, but it should be on a dental hygienist’s checklist to have it set up at the start of the day to minimize the cleanup time in between appointments.
Once all the beginning-of-the-day preparation time is done, it’s time to get to the fun stuff. What types of procedures a dental hygienist performs varies from office to office, but here’s a handy list of typical procedures a dental hygienist will be expected to perform. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
“Dental hygienists typically do the following:
- Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
- Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
- Take and develop dental x rays
- Assess patients’ oral health and report findings to dentists
- Document patient care and treatment plans
- Educate patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss correctly
Dental hygienists use many types of tools—including hand, power, and ultrasonic tools—in their work. In some cases, they use lasers. Hygienists remove stains with an air-polishing device, which sprays a combination of air, water, and baking soda. They polish teeth with a power tool that works like an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists also use x-ray machines to take pictures to check for tooth or jaw problems.
Dental hygienists talk to patients about ways to keep their teeth and gums healthy. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health. They may also advise patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral care devices.”
Post-appointment (for the patient)
A visit isn’t done for a patient just because the latex gloves come off. A dental hygienist frequently guides the patient through aspects of proper home care and scheduling for the next visit (or if necessary, a follow-up).
Take-Home Materials and Instructions
Who doesn’t love getting sent home with a parting gift? Dental offices will frequently put together a small baggie of useful dental materials that a dental hygienist will use to help instruct patients on how to perform proper dental care at home. The dental hygienist may include items such as a new toothbrush with the right stiffness for the patient, floss, a helpful brochure on proper brushing techniques, and anything else that might be useful. Dental hygienists care about their patients even when they’re not in the chair, so parting materials and instructions ensure the patient is well-cared for.
The dental hygienist may either reschedule a patient for their next visit or hand off the patient to an administrator who manages the office calendar. Again, making sure the patient is scheduled for their next visit shows the dental hygienist cares about their patients beyond today.
Post-appointment (for the hygienist)
Once a patient has left the dentist’s chair, the next patient may be waiting, so a dental hygienist quickly has to get prepped and refocused for the next appointment without losing valuable patient information.
Complete Patient Progress Notes
A patient’s mouth rarely stays the same from one visit to the next. A diligent dental hygienist will take note of any warning signs for oral disease or tooth decay and record the observations in a patient’s progress notes. The notes are not only helpful for the dental hygienist to better prepare for the patient’s next visit but they’re also used by the dentist to assess the need for complex procedures (e.g. root canal).
Clean The Room
Of all the daily activities a dental hygienist has to perform, cleaning the room in between appointments is the most amount of work in the shortest period. It’s never a good idea to keep a patient waiting longer than necessary, so the quicker the cleanup and reset can get done, the better. Here’s a list of tasks a dental hygienist typically needs to perform in the gap between appointments.
- Move disposable items, such as patient bibs, to a proper trash container
- Place used instruments in the ultrasonic sterilization bath before going into the autoclave
- Set up a new patient tray with instruments to match the next patient’s appointment needs
- Perform a disinfectant wipe down of all nearby surfaces
- Place new barrier tape on all direct contact surfaces.
- Replace disposables such as air water syringe tips and saliva injectors
End of the Day
Whew! That’s quite a day so far, but before a dental hygienist can head home, there are a few tasks left to do to get ready for the next day.
Catch Up and Complete Progress Notes
The amount of available time between patient visits can sometimes not be enough to fully complete all the progress notes. A dental hygienist will use the quiet time at the end of the day to catch up on any notes while the observations are still fresh.
Prep Instruments for the Autoclave
Autoclaving is the last step for the used instruments to become fully sterilized and ready for patient use again. A dental hygienist will take all the used instruments soaking in the ultrasonic sterilization bath and run them in the autoclave overnight so they’re ready first thing in the morning.
Empty Water Bottle and Empty Water Lines
Standing water is ripe for bacteria to grow into mold and disease. A dental hygienist will rinse out and dry the water container and water lines to ensure the dental unit is clean and bacteria-free for the next morning.
Clean Suction Traps
All the food and plaque from a patient’s mouth has to go somewhere, and the purpose of a suction trap is to capture the material from a patient’s mouth in one place for easy disposal and cleaning. A dental hygienist understands it’s better to clean the trap before leaving rather than leaving it overnight to save time getting ready in the morning, and to prevent the risk of the food and plaque residue feeding mold and bacteria.
Power Down and Lock Up
When the day is done, it’s time to shut down all the equipment. No equipment must be left running overnight to save on electricity usage and to reduce the amount of wear and tear on the equipment with moving parts.
Is Hygiene Right For You?
Now that you have a better idea about the daily life of a dental hygienist, decide if this is the type of career that makes sense for you. If it does, check out the education resource on the American Association of Dental Hygienists website for more information.