Dental hygiene and nursing are two in-demand and highly-rewarding professions. While they have distinct job functions, roles, and requirements, nurses and dental hygienists also have a lot in common. Both types of professionals work directly with patients to improve and prevent health conditions. Both have the option to see regular patients, offer regular check-ups, and regularly make a difference in the lives of others. What’s more, you can become a dental hygienist or a registered nurse (RN) with an associate degree in hand. This translates to a lucrative and caring career in just three years or less.
No matter which career path you lean towards, there is great reward. Below we break down the differences between dental hygienists and RNs, to help guide you in choosing the best career for you.
Dental Hygienist vs. Registered Nurse Job Responsibilities
Dental hygienists provide basic dental care to patients, under the supervision of a licensed dentist. They conduct oral examinations and assess patients for signs of oral diseases like gingivitis. Dental hygienists also provide preventive care and cleanings, to ensure patients walk away with a fresh and healthy smile. On a daily basis, you can find dental hygienists fulfilling the following job duties:
- Cleaning teeth to remove any tartar, stains, and plaque
- Applying fluoride and sealants to protect patients’ teeth
- Examining gums for disease, and teeth for cavities
- Taking and developing dental x-rays
- Reporting any findings to the dentist
- Reviewing patient histories and dental charts
- Educating patients on proper oral care, including flossing, brushing, and nutrition
Registered nurses are licensed professionals who work alongside doctors and physicians to provide quality care to patients. While dental hygienists specialize in oral healthcare, registered nurses – commonly known as RNs – are qualified to assess and treat a wider array of health conditions. Nurses provide detailed assessments and coordinate care plans, ensuring that each patient’s medical needs are met during their hospital or doctor’s visit. Examples of the duties of a registered nurse include:
- Conducting examinations, and assessing patients’ symptoms
- Administering medications and treatments
- Operating medical equipment and technology
- Performing diagnostic tests and analyzing results
- Observing, monitoring, and recording patients’ health conditions
- Assisting doctors during exams and surgeries
- Communicating and collaborating with doctors and physicians
- Overseeing other nursing staff, such as LPNs and CNAs
- Creating, reviewing, and coordinating treatment plans
- Teaching patients how to manage injuries or illnesses
Dental Hygienist vs. RN Career Flexibility
Dental hygienists typically work in private dental offices where they enjoy a regular day-to-day schedule. Dental offices, in general, are open during normal business hours and on a Monday through Friday schedule. Sometimes, dental hygienists may work on weekends and evenings, but this is rare. Most dental hygienists work part-time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though full-time options are available. This gives great flexibility for individuals who have other obligations at home.
Nurses can be found in a range of work environments, including hospitals, private offices, outpatient clinics, government agencies, schools, and long-term care facilities. Of course, their schedule can vary depending on their workplace. However, all have flexible options. Let’s consider a couple examples.
For nurses that work in schools or private physicians’ offices, there is a more regular, daily scheduling cadence, usually with weekends off. In hospitals, where most nurses work today, work schedules can vary greatly. For instance, many ER nurses work three, 12-hour shifts, allowing them four days off. Their shifts may fall on days or overnights, depending on their preference and the facility’s needs. In certain departments, nurses may also find more regular, daytime shifts that fall within typical office hours. No matter your needs in nursing, you are likely to find a schedule that works for you.
At the end of the day, both career options offer flexibility, meaning it really comes down to your needs. Do you want to have early mornings at work, and afternoons and evenings at home? Do you need a part-time schedule, to balance other priorities? Do you wish to have multiple days off in a row? These are all questions to consider as you weigh the dental hygienist vs. nursing options.
Dental Hygienist vs. Nurse Salary and Growth Potential
Registered nurses and dental hygienists both earn promising salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses earn an average salary of $75,330 per year. Meanwhile, dental hygienists earn a median annual salary of $77,090 in the United States.
Salaries may differ depending on where you work. For example, in Connecticut, the average registered nurse earns $84,850 annually. Full-time dental hygienists also earn an average of $85,610 each year in Connecticut.
While dental hygienists may earn slightly more than registered nurses on average, there is typically more room for growth in an RN position. RNs that fall within the highest percentile for wages earn more than $116,230 annually. Dental hygienists in the top percentile earn a salary of or more than $104,420 per year in the United States.
Nursing brings great advancement opportunities. With experience and education, registered nurses have the potential to enter leadership positions or specialize in a certain area of nursing, such as pediatrics or oncology. While an associate degree is the standard in nursing, RNs have the option to complete a fast-paced, online RN-to-BSN program to really grow their role. For dental hygienists, there are also educational and training programs available. However, beyond dental hygiene, advancement opportunities may be limited to dentistry (requiring a doctorate), health education, or becoming a medical and health services manager.
However, both careers can expect great growth over the next several years. Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow 7 percent between 2019 and 2029, adding over 221,000 jobs to the field for new, qualified nurses. Dental hygienists can expect similar growth of 6 percent over the next several years. However, being a smaller field in size, about 13,300 job openings will become available to new dental hygienists during this timeframe.
Dental Hygiene vs. Nursing School Requirements
As you can gather, both dental hygiene and nursing career paths are fruitful and fulfilling. Both career options can bring meaning, purpose, and stability to your professional life. The question now remains, how do you become a nurse or dental hygienist? What are the differences in training requirements?
To become a dental hygienist, you must hold at least an associate degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor’s and master’s programs in dental hygiene are also available, should you desire to qualify for higher pay or potential research, management, or teaching roles. Associate degree programs take about two to three years to complete, and involve both clinical and classroom components. Make sure the dental hygiene school or program is accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA). This is required to take your board examination and become licensed as a dental hygienist in your state.
Dental hygienists must be licensed to practice in every state today, though requirements vary depending on where you live. In Connecticut, aspiring hygienists must pass the National Board Examination from the ADA (see here), as well as one of the clinical performance examinations cited by Connecticut.
Registered nurses must also be licensed in their state. In order to become a licensed RN, one must first complete a state-approved nursing program, such as the associate degree in nursing program at Goodwin University. Typically, nursing school takes about two to three years to complete, similar to dental hygiene school. However, some nurses choose to earn their bachelor’s in nursing (BSN), which can take up to four years to complete.
Once a nurse completes an accredited nursing degree, they will be ready to pursue their license. Licensure is granted after passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nursing (NCLEX-RN). This exam is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, and proves one’s comprehension of patient care, analysis and problem-solving, and key healthcare standards.
Nursing vs. Dental Hygiene: Which Career is Best for You?
Choosing between a dental hygiene or nursing career is a major, and deeply personal, decision. No matter which career path you set your sights on, though, you can expect great satisfaction in your role. Both nurses and dental hygienists have the unique ability to make a difference in their patients’ lives, and constant opportunities to build relationships with patients in their care. If you love to work with people and desire a meaningful career in healthcare, you are already on the right track.
Goodwin University offers both dental hygienist programs and nursing degree programs for students interested in these caring professions. You can learn more about these offerings, as well as other healthcare programs, by calling 800-889-3282 or visiting us online here.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.