Patients frequently ask me to clarify the difference between a dentist and oral health therapist.
This question has emerged as the popularity of hygienists – or oral health therapists (OHT) – has escalated in recent years and is now considered the gold standard.
It’s useful for patients to understand their differences so they can make informed decisions about their dental care.
With a clearer understanding, both clinicians and patients can work from a basis of shared expectations.
What’s an Oral Health Therapist?
An Oral Health Therapist (OHT) is a 3 year degree-qualified clinician who has completed studies in dental hygiene and dental therapy.
An OHT mostly perform hygiene treatments with some other dental treatments for children up to the age of 18. These include fissure sealants, fillings and provide care for more severe forms of gum disease.
A dentist is also degree-qualified. They have completed five years of undergraduate study in dentistry. Educated in all facets of oral care, this higher qualification means dentists perform more complex dental work. A general dentist can diagnose oral health conditions. However, they may refer to other specialists if needed.
Both dentists and oral hygiene therapists must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioners Registration Association (AHPRA). AHPRA has strict requirements for registered dental professionals, including annual compulsory professional development. Working like a kind of guarantee, this ensures your dentist or OHT are current with advances in science and dental practice.
Your dentist and oral health therapist complement each other in the services and care they provide.
How do a dentist and oral health therapist work together?
Once you’re on an oral hygiene maintenance program, you would meet with your oral health therapist. This is usually every six months or might occur every few months depending on your needs.
He or she would clean your teeth and gums. They would also administer fluoride treatments and check for gingivitis and other oral disease.
As the name suggests, an oral health therapist will discuss the way to properly care for your teeth. Oral hygiene is their main focus and specialty.
Depending on the outcome from your check and clean, the dentist may also come in and see you at this time.
Often at the recommendation of the therapist, the dentist will be the one to diagnose any problems. This could involve examining x-rays, repairing teeth and prescribing medication.
They may perform procedures like root canals, fillings for cavities, dental crowns and much more.
In simple terms, dentists can complete more skilled treatment. A therapist provides more general care and education for teeth and gums.
Why see an oral health therapist?
Both dentists and oral health therapists can clean teeth at regular hygiene checks. However, there are great advantages to working with an OHT for hygiene.Their whole and sole focus in their profession is ‘cleaning’ and educating.
While a dentist is kept busy with more complex treatments, an oral health therapist will spend much more time with a patient, thereby offering a more personalised experience.
Another advantage to working with an oral health therapist is the fee is less than if a dentist were providing the same service.
Many oral health therapists are females. Some people may find it easier to receive their regular hygiene treatments from an oral health therapist. If you have a fear of the dentist, this is a good idea.
An OHT is qualified to treat both adults and children and can therefore see the whole family.
If you are on an oral hygiene maintenance program working with an OHT, this is considered the best option.
Still have questions?
If you’re still confused about whether seeing an OHT is a good option for you and your family, why not get in touch?
Our friendly team is trained to explain the difference between a dentist and oral health therapist and will help guide you in the right direction based on your specific oral hygiene needs.
My typical day would consist of seeing six to 10 clients, and our main focus is really to treat and prevent – it’s prevention of gum disease.
Communication would be as important if not more important than our own technical skills. It’s about building trust with your clients and a good rapport so they’re happy to come back and see you so we can keep their oral health maintained and in a good healthy status.
People will often ask ‘Oh my goodness, how can you look in somebody’s mouth all day long?’ Somebody comes in with a mouth that is just really unhealthy, and they can see the changes and they can appreciate the health that they’ve achieved and keep them on a good healthy path, then we’re just creating health.
If you think you might be interested in dental hygiene as a career I would say visit your favourite dentist or your dental therapist at school. See if you can hang out there for the day or afternoon and have a good look around and follow the hygienist and see if it’s something you might be interested in.
I do absolutely love my job and look forward to coming to work every day, and it’s the clients that come in and the personal relationships we make here.
Promote oral health in the community and provide a range of clinical services, including dental examinations, preventative treatments, scaling and cleaning, the management of gum disease, fillings, simple extractions for children, dental radiography, taking dental impressions and a range of orthodontic duties.
This course starts with a study of preventive dentistry and oral health therapy techniques, together with relevant health, research and communication units that form part of your interprofessional first year.
In your second and third years your studies will combine theory, practical sessions and clinical practice.
You will undertake more than 750 hours of clinical training during the course in a variety of settings such as the Oral Health Centre of Western Australia, community clinics, private dental practices and the Dental Health Services’ clinic.
When you graduate you will have the practical industry skills and experience you need to start your career in oral health therapy with confidence.
Please refer to the handbook for additional course overview information.
What jobs can the Bachelor of Science (Oral Health Therapy) lead to?
- Oral health therapist
- General and specialist private dental practices
- Government school dental clinics
What you’ll learn
- provide appropriate patient care and dental health education by applying sound clinical principles and behaviour management techniques conducive to good oral health
- use problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills in the management of oral disease in individuals and the community
- identify oral disease, gather and interpret data and synthesise information to develop appropriate preventive and treatment approaches as part of the overall needs of individuals
- communicate effectively with other health professionals, patients and various target groups
- use new and existing technologies relevant to dental practice in a responsible and effective manner
- utilise lifelong learning skills to help foster ongoing personal and professional development
- promote the oral health and general health of individuals and the community by working collaboratively, sharing knowledge and considering different perspectives
- demonstrate cultural awareness and understanding in the provision of patient care
- practice in a professional and ethical manner as part of the dental team and critically reflect on care provided.
How do you become an oral health therapist?
To become an oral health therapist you have to study oral health therapy (Bachelor of Oral Health) at university. To get into the courses you need to gain your VCE/HSC/ACT Year 12 and apply through the University admissions scheme in your state. Prerequisite subjects, or assumed knowledge, in one or more of English, Biology and Chemistry are normally required. Some courses also require Health and Human Development. Entry is highly competitive, and you may need to sit selection tests and attend an interview. Some universities require you to sit the UMAT. Contact the universities for more information as requirements may change. Supplementary courses exist at some universities to enable dental therapists or dental hygienists to add the necessary skills to become an oral health therapist.
- Charles Sturt University offers a 3 year Bachelor of Oral Health (Therapy and Hygiene) degree at Holmesglen (VIC) and Wagga Wagga (NSW) campuses where clinical placement make up around 60% of the course. Visit Website Apply through the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) if you are a school leaver and Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) if you do not reside in NSW or ACT.
Oral Health Therapists must be registered with the Dental Board of Australia before they can practice.