Change is here. It is needed and it has already started. Ask any dental hygienist on any career path, and chances are they’re aware that our profession is moving toward a new horizon. It is full of new opportunities, advanced technology, modified scope of practice, and new ways of implementing dental hygiene services. It has been noted in many forums, research notes, and educators’ symposiums that dental hygiene needs to adapt itself to the changing needs of the public, including the long-time effects of a graying population and adjustments in public health-care systems. We will discuss some of the needed changes here.
Several dental hygiene thought leaders have created quite a buzz about this topic by discussing the impact of the changes surrounding the dental hygiene sphere. Michael Sparer, JD, PhD, Department Chair, Health Policy & Management, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, talkedat the national symposium held by The Santa Fe Group of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), and the ADHA Institute for Oral Health in 2013, about the transformation in the dental hygiene arena.
He raised the following questions: “Should dental hygiene education have a new mission? What will the next generation of dental hygienists look like? What will our role be, what skills will be needed, and will a new curriculum need to be developed?”
In a growing number of states and provinces in the U.S and Canada, changes in regulation allows direct access to dental hygiene care by eliminating the barriers, such as the need for a dentist’s order to treat patients. As a result, dental hygienists can reach out to more segments of the population, especially the underserved sectors. In addition, more dental hygienists are becoming aware of opportunities to deliver oral health care in unique settings, such as mobile practices that serve long-term care facilities, and in public settings such as schools and community facilities.
Teaming up with other health-care professionals to treat people as a whole, and connecting oral to body wellness are other ways dental hygiene careers are evolving. New tools for oral cancer screening contribute to a modified scope of practice and are changing the way we deliver our care. We’re at a different, better, and more challenging place now than we were in the 1990s or before. Dental hygiene has moved far beyond dental “cleaning” and fluoride treatment.
How can we adapt to these changes
We recognize that our profession has evolved like the world around us has developed. In particular, we observe variations in scope of practice, changes in how other health-care professionals perceive us, and changes in the public awareness for their oral health care needs. How can we adapt to these changes? The answer is twofold – one addresses existing dental hygienists and the other addresses future dental hygienists.
For current dental hygienists, the challenge is how to ensure that all dental hygienists have access to the necessary knowledge and resources for adapting to new technologies and ways of reaching potential clients, and how to implement these new concepts and technologies into their practice.
To what extent are the expanding certifications of dental hygienists actually being exercised? Current examples include Independent Dental Hygienists in several provinces in Canada, Registered Dental Hygienists in Alternative Practice (RDHAP) in California, and the Expanded Practice Dental Hygienists (EPDH) in Michigan and Oregon. In many places the regulatory requirement to maintain a professional portfolio can be an excellent way to ensure a high level of professionalism and awareness to additional career paths.
When examining dental hygiene program curriculums in universities and colleges across the U.S. and Canada, we observe minimal variations. Core courses are very similar in most programs because they need to be in line with the profession competencies of entry-to-practice level dental hygienists. Most variations relate to non-dental elective courses in degree-type dental hygiene programs.
The foundations of dental hygiene education will always be at the core of any program. No matter what the future of our profession, we still need to know basic head and neck anatomy as well as oral pathology and pre-clinic dental hygiene theory and practice. But is this sufficient for career longevity in dental hygiene? The foundation core dental hygiene courses prepare students to be great dental hygiene clinicians in the traditional setting. Most curriculums have had only minor revisions over the years.
Here is an example of a curriculum of a baccalaureate degree program in dental hygiene:
Stayed tuned for how e-learning can affect the future of the dental hygiene profession Part 2 on December 19.
1. Goldie MP. Transforming Dental Hygiene Education: the future of the dental hygiene profession. Accessed Nov 29, 2014. http://www.dentistryiq.com/articles/2013/10/transforming-dental.html.
2. ADHA. http://www.adha.org/resources-docs/7524_Direct_Access_Map.pdf. Accessed Nov 29, 2014.
3. Goldie MP. Transforming Dental Hygiene Education: guiding the redefinition of dental hygienists' education and practice. 2013. Accessed Nov 29, 2014. http://www.dentistryiq.com/articles/2013/10/guiding-the-redefinition.html.