Oral Health Therapist
Oral health therapists provide dental care to patients, which includes treating gum disease and teaching people how to care for their teeth and gums. They may refer clients to dentists for more specialised dental treatment.
Oral health therapists with up to three years' experience usually earn
$35-$45 per hour
Senior oral health therapists usually earn
$45-$60 per hour
Source: New Zealand Dental Hygienists' Association, 2018.
Pay for oral health therapists varies depending on experience, location, and whether they work full time or part time. Most work on contract to one or more dentists, and are paid an hourly rate.
- New oral health therapists earn about $35 an hour.
- Those with two to three years' experience can earn up to $45.
- Senior oral health therapists with more than five years' experience, or who supervise others, may earn up to $60.
Oral health therapists in Auckland tend to earn more than those in other parts of New Zealand.
Source: New Zealand Dental Hygienists' Association, 2018.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)
What you will do
Oral health therapists work with clinical guidance from a dentist or periodontist (a dentist who specialises in treating gum disease). Oral health therapists may do some or all of the following:
- examine the patient's mouth, teeth, gums and jaw and prepare a treatment plan
- take and develop x-rays (if they are registered to do so)
- extract first teeth with a local anaesthetic
- recognise and treat periodontal disease (gum disease)
- educate patients on how to improve and maintain their oral health
- make mouthguards for sport, and stents (small plastic trays) for home bleaching
- whiten teeth
- maintain orthodontic appliances for patients
- keep records of treatment
- teach and/or carry out dental research
- refer patients to dentists or dental specialists.
Skills and knowledge
Oral health therapists need to have knowledge of:
- the structure and function of the teeth, jaw and mouth
- human health and development
- how to diagnose and treat oral health problems such as gum disease
- a range of oral health care procedures, including hygiene and sterilisation.
Oral health therapists:
- may work full or part-time hours for one or more dental practices
- usually work in a team situation at a general dental practice in their own treatment room, or in school dental clinics or mobile units
- may also work in places such as hospitals, iwi-based dental clinics, and nursing homes.
What's the job really like?
Dental hygienist video
Deb Pratt talks about what it’s like to be a dental hygienist - 1.28 mins.
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.
To become an oral health therapist you need one of the following:
- Bachelor of Oral Health from Otago University
- Bachelor of Health Science in Oral Health from Auckland University of Technology.
You also need to be registered with the Dental Council of New Zealand, and must hold an Annual Practising Certificate.
- University of Otago website - information about the Bachelor of Oral Health
- Auckland University of Technology website - information about the Bachelor of Health Science
The Vulnerable Children Act 2014 means that if you have certain serious convictions, you can’t be employed in a role where you are responsible for, or work alone with, children.
NCEA Level 3 is required to enter tertiary training. Useful subjects include biology, chemistry, physics, maths and health education.
Oral health therapists need to be:
- encouraging and willing to listen
- caring and sensitive to patients who are in pain or distress
- aware of the needs of people from other cultures and backgrounds
- able to explain complex information to patients
- skilled at organising, making decisions, and solving problems.
Useful experience for oral health therapists includes:
- dental receptionist work
- dental assistant work.
Oral health therapists need to have good eyesight (with or without corrective lenses).
Oral health therapists need to be registered with the Dental Council of New Zealand and have a current Annual Practising Certificate.
- Dental Council of New Zealand website - information on registration
- Dental Council of New Zealand website - information on applying for an annual practising certificate
Find out more about training
- Dental Council of New Zealand
- (04) 499 4820 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.dentalcouncil.org.nz
- New Zealand Dental Hygienists' Association
- - email@example.com - www.nzdha.co.nz
- New Zealand Oral Health Association
- firstname.lastname@example.org - www.nzoha.org.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Oral health therapist opportunities growing as more people require dental care
Demand for oral health therapists is growing because:
- more people are becoming aware of the importance of preventive dental care
- the ageing population and a rise in cases of obesity and diabetes mean more people need dental care
- the dental therapist and hygienist workforce (which makes up part of the oral health therapist workforce) is ageing.
Number of dental therapists and hygienists declining as more oral health therapists graduate
In 2007, two oral health therapy degrees were introduced, replacing the old dental hygienist and dental therapist qualifications. As more people graduate with the new qualifications, the number of oral health therapists will grow, while the number of dental therapists and hygienists will decline.
According to the Census, 1,116 oral health therapists worked in New Zealand in 2018.
Oral health therapists work for other dental professionals or have their own practice
Most oral health therapists work for:
- school and community dental services.
- dentists who do general dental work
- dental specialists such as periodontists (who prevent, diagnose and treat gum disease) or orthodontists (who prevent, diagnose and treat misalignments of the teeth and jaw).
Some also set up their own private practices, and may contract out their services to a dentist.
- Carrington, S, vice president, New Zealand Dental Hygienists' Association (NZDHA), Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission interview, October 2017.
- Dental Council of New Zealand, 'Annual Report 2017', accessed January 2018, (www.dentalcouncil.org.nz).
- Stats NZ, '2018 Census Data', 2019.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)
Progression and specialisations
Oral health therapists may progress to set up their own practices, become managers in school and community dental services, or work as academics at the University of Otago or Auckland University of Technology.
They may also work in practices that specialise in:
- prosthodontics, preventing and treating gum disease in people with dental prostheses (crowns and bridges)
- orthodontics, preventing and treating gum disease in children and young people with braces
- periodontics, treating people who have periodontal (gum) disease.
Last updated 8 March 2022