When I first graduated as a Dental Hygienist I had a lot more energy than I do now. I was 19, and thought that it was fun and exciting to go out until 3am in the freezing cold, only to shout conversations through cigarette smoke and over loud music. You can imagine my disappointment when almost nobody I spoke to knew what a Dental Hygienist was. It's easier now, everyone knows what a dentist is, but there seems to be a general lack of knowledge about dental auxiliaries and what they do. They are an integral part of the dental industry, (there's even a national bimonthly magazine dedicated to this important bunch of people), so let me introduce them to you.
Also known as a Dental Nurse, or DCA (Dental Chairside Assistant or Dental Clinic Assistant), this person is completely invaluable to a dentist. He or she is the one at the coalface, handing over instruments, mixing materials, suctioning away water, and generally keeping the dentist working efficiently. Dental Assistants are also responsible for infection control in the practice, meaning they clean the treatment room between patients, and clean and sterilise instruments. Some Dental Assistants have additional training which allows them to take radiographs, (x-rays).
Here's where it gets confusing. Over the past 40 years there have been several incarnations of Dental Therapists and Hygienists, and it varied from state to state. In WA, an Associate Diploma in Dental Therapy was offered from 1971. From this training, a Dental Therapist would generally work on children, providing preventive care as well as doing fillings. This was often provided through the School Dental Service, but there are now Dental Therapists to be found in private practices treating children. Within private practice Dental Therapists also treat adults, performing preventive dental procedures such as mouthguards, fissure sealants, and the good old scale and clean.
In 1995, the training in WA changed from dental therapy to dental hygiene. A Dental Hygienist focusses on preventive treatment for adults and children, with a particular skill set involving the treatment of periodontitis, (gum disease). Most Dental Hygienists are employed in private practice cleaning teeth, or assisting in specialist orthodontic practices by taking impressions and removing braces. Dental Hygienists are not trained to do fillings.
School Dental Therapist
Shortly after the introduction of the dental hygiene program, it was recognised that there was still a need for Dental Therapists in the school system. So, in 2000 a parallel course was offered alongside dental hygiene. Graduates from this became School Dental Therapists, able to perform all the duties of a Dental Therapist but within the School Dental Service only, not within private practice.
Oral Health Therapist
2011 saw the introduction of the Bachelor of Science (Oral Health Therapy) in WA. This course incorporates the skills and knowledge of both a Dental Therapist and a Dental Hygienist. So, the most recent graduates have the broadest range of clinical skills of all the dental auxiliaries in WA.
A Dental Technician works "behind the scenes", in a laboratory making things as prescribed by a dentist. This can include dentures, crowns, bridges, mouthguards, whitening trays, splints… the list goes on! Many Dental Technicians will specialise in a certain area, such as ceramics, or chrome/cobalt dentures.
An extension of the Dental Technician training, a Dental Prosthetist is able to treat patients directly by providing complete dentures, partial dentures, and mouthguards.