DentalCare Logo

Oral Health Care: A Whole New Language

Course Number: 21

Dental Hygiene/Dental Hygienist

Dental hygiene is the science and practice of the recognition, treatment, and prevention of oral diseases. The registered dental hygienist is a primary care oral health professional who has graduated from an accredited dental hygiene program in an institution of higher education and is licensed in dental hygiene who provides educational, clinical, research, administrative, and therapeutic services supporting total health through the promotion of optimal oral health. In practice, dental hygienists integrate the roles of clinician, educator, advocate, manager, and researcher to prevent oral diseases and promote health. Each state has defined its own specific regulations for dental hygiene licensure.

Dental hygienists work in partnership with dentists. Dentists and dental hygienists practice together as colleagues, each offering professional expertise for the goal of providing optimum oral health care to the people served. Dental hygienists are viewed as experts in their field; consulted about appropriate dental hygiene interventions; expected to make clinical dental hygiene decisions; and plan, implement, and evaluate the dental hygiene component of the overall care plan. The dental hygienist establishes the dental hygiene diagnosis, which is an integral component of the comprehensive dental diagnosis established by the dentist.

The dental hygienist typically practices in one of two major models, the professional model or the occupational model:

  • The professional model views the dental hygienist to be knowledge-based wherein he or she uses a process of care or standard of care to assess needs, diagnose oral health problems, as well as to plan, implement, and evaluate care. The practitioner is responsible for making decisions about care and is accountable to the patient. This model requires higher levels of learning (education).

  • The occupational model views the dental hygienist as more task-based than knowledge-based. Typically, this individual would be referred to as an “auxiliary” and the majority of his or her tasks or duties being delegated by the dentist often under direct supervision. Expertise, evaluation of results, self-assessment, and decision-making are not stressed and generally not considered an integral part of the individual’s responsibility. This model conveys the idea that the practitioner is accountable only to the supervising dentist, who is then accountable to the patient. This model generally implies “training.”

The registered (licensed) dental hygienist provides a professional practice that includes prevention, education and therapeutic interventions to aid individuals in attaining and maintaining the maximum degree of oral health possible for the individual. The professional association for dental hygienists is the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA).

The seven professional roles of the dental hygienist include:

  • Administrator – such as the program director in an educational setting

  • Corporate – such as product research and sales

  • Clinician – providing direct patient care in collaboration with other health professionals

  • Educator – providing clinical, classroom, and/or continuing education to individuals and groups

  • Public Health – enhance access to care by providing oral health services and education in community clinics or schools

  • Researcher – to contribute to advancement of the knowledge base in oral health care by testing new procedures, products or theories for accuracy and effectiveness 3

  • Entrepreneur – to initiate or finance new oral health-related enterprises.

For more information about the professional roles of the dental hygienist, go to