The word “dentist” ultimately comes from the Latin word dens, which means “tooth”; essentially, the word means “tooth person.” Such a title suggests that dentists are knowledgeable about all things related to teeth, and that is broadly correct: a dentist is a trained professional whose purview is all things related to the teeth (including the gums and often the cheeks).
“Hygienist,” by contrast, descends from the Greek word “hygeia,” which means “health” but specifically means “health that comes from cleanliness.” That title, or more properly the title of “dental hygienist,” indicates a person who specializes in oral health that comes from keeping the teeth clean. That, too, is broadly correct: a dental hygienist is a trained professional who specializes in keeping the teeth healthy by means of keeping them clean.
What, then, is the difference between the two? And can dentists do what hygienists do, and vice versa?
Differences between dentists and hygienists: training
To become a dentist, a person must first acquire a bachelor’s degree, almost always in the sciences. He or she must then go to dental school, where courses are taken in everything related to health of the mouth. Often a residency is required, especially for dentists who wish to become specialized in pediatric dentistry (the dentistry of children), for example, or orthodontics – followed by licensure with the appropriate boards of oversight.
This training means that dentists learn the basics of dental hygiene along the way, but far more of their training goes into learning about diagnosing and treating problems with teeth.
Hygienists, on the other hand, acquire different degrees, which are more along the lines of associate of bachelor’s degrees. Hygienists usually also must become board certified, but their training is specific to the cleaning of teeth.
Differences between dentists and hygienists: practice
So can dentists do what hygienists do, and vice versa? As far as the second part of the question, the answer is “no”. Only dentists can fill cavities, and while hygienists through long experience can often recognize visual symptoms of illnesses with teeth and gums, they are not allowed to officially to diagnose them. Neither can hygienists perform root canals, install implants, or install braces.
On the other hand, dentists are trained in the proper cleanliness of teeth and can, therefore, theoretically do what hygienists do. However, dental hygienics are only part of a dentist’s training, while hygienists are exclusively – and therefore far more intensively – trained in it. Furthermore, hygienists devote themselves exclusively to the cleaning of teeth, which means that over time they pick up skills which allow their cleaning to be faster, more efficient, and frequently less painful for the patient.
Dentists and hygienists: partners for oral health
A rule of thumb might be expressed along these lines: a dentist is the person who will fix what is wrong, while a hygienist will maintain what is right. In fact, though, it is rarely necessary to make a choice between the two. While most states allow hygienists to maintain some form of their own practice, very often dental offices will have both dentists and hygienists acting as a team.
Thus, a typical visit to the “dentist’s office” will usually involve a cleaning, performed expertly by a hygienist. Since the hygienist already has eyes on a patient’s teeth, he or she will be in an excellent position to notice something out of the ordinary, and can alert the dentist, who can diagnose a potential problem and will know the proper treatment.
On the other hand, there are some issues that may not be readily apparent or even visible to the naked eye, which is why a dentist will often conduct tests such as x-rays to make sure everything is alright.
Then again, if the visit is for something slightly less routine – such as getting a filling, for example – the dentist will be the one in charge of that, although often a quick cleaning may take place before or after the procedure.
A winning combination
Both hygienists and dentists perform different functions in providing oral health care. Hygienists are usually the best option if all that is needed is a cleaning, as they will usually do it quickly and as painlessly as possible, having honed their skills through their specialized training and, in most cases, through practice. While dentists can perform cleanings, their usual role is to diagnose and treat any illness with the teeth. The two of them are an unbeatable combination to keep teeth healthy and clean.