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Doctoral hygiene education — sooner rather than later

I’m going to do something very exciting this month. I’m copresenting a workshop with Ann Spolarich, RDH, PhD, at the American Dental Education Association meeting on the creation of a doctoral program in dental hygiene. The focus of this workshop will be on the curriculum, but it is the mere concept that has me fired up.

Now seems like the right time to begin creating education in dental hygiene at the doctoral level. The vision is to have the program taught by national and international faculty, and to have the program be online, making it manageable for dental hygienists from around the globe to take part in this educational experience.

To create this doctoral program, a task force of esteemed colleagues has been assembled. These are individuals who have been talking and thinking about doctoral education for quite some time. They have a true passion for designing something that is meaningful to students and the profession.

In addition to myself, the task force members include Ann Spolarich, RDH, PhD, Arizona; Tara L. Johnson, RDH, PhD, Idaho; Ellen J. Rogo, RDH, PhD, Idaho; Yvonne A.B. Bunk-Werkhoven, PhD, The Netherlands; Harold Henson, RDH, MEd, Texas (doctoral candidate); Sandy Cobban, RDH, Master of Distance Education, Alberta, Canada (doctoral candidate); Dagmar Slot, RDH, MSc, The Netherlands (doctoral candidate); Nancy Sherrill, RDH, BS, Colorado (master degree candidate, student representative).

These individuals have extensive experience in dental hygiene education and research. They understand the importance of designing a program that creates a cadre of specialists who can contribute to the knowledge base of the discipline of dental hygiene.

As with any new initiative, there are many parameters that need to be considered. The type of program is one factor to be addressed. For example, there could be an entry level program that results in advanced practitioners capable of working without the supervision of other health-care providers similar to what exists in physical therapy. Another option would be a fast track program for current dental hygienists similar to what is offered through nursing as a doctorate of clinical practice. Or we can go another route and create a program that focuses on the development of researchers and academicians. Given the shortage of dental hygiene educators, development of the latter concept may be the first consideration.

Another element to be addressed includes the educational experiences offered within the program. Traditional doctoral education includes a dissertation in which the student conducts an in-depth research study. The dissertation is one option, but another choice might be to require the development of particular skills, including writing a grant and a literature review, conducting clinical, laboratory, and/or systematic review research, presenting at national and international conferences, and publishing in peer reviewed journals. Some of our European colleagues are enrolled in doctoral programs in which they are required to publish a number of manuscripts in peer reviewed journals with an impact factor in lieu of a dissertation. The Task Force has to determine which options provide the best opportunity for advancing the profession and the future education of dental hygienists.

Something else to consider are the faculty themselves. We have many colleagues from around the world with doctoral degrees who specialize in different areas. Including them in the program will provide a richness and expansion of ideas that does not exist in our undergraduate dental hygiene programs. Their contributions as teachers, scholars, and mentors will be exceptional.

Administrative support is essential to making this type of program successful. Fortunately, the dean of the Division of Health Sciences and the president of Idaho State University share this vision. They recognize the value of both doctoral education and online education. They believe this concept has great potential for the growth of the department of dental hygiene as well as the discipline itself.

We have to face certain realities when planning such a venture. There is the overriding concern about funding such a program. We have to be willing to financially support such an endeavor as faculty will need to be compensated and doctoral research will need to be funded. Assuming the doctoral program concepts such as faculty, curriculum, outcomes, and more are approved, the big reality boils down to finances. Will a foundation or corporate entity support this initiative? There is no doubt that we will have to be aggressive in securing the funding.

Despite the work involved, there is something inherently appealing about this project. To think that we can take Dr. Fones’ concept of a dental hygienist teaching oral health prevention in schools to another level shows the commitment dental hygienists have to fostering continued learning opportunities and the expansion of the profession. Dental hygienists who want doctoral degrees have to obtain them in other areas such as administration, health policy, education, physiology, even nursing. Those of us who value and want a doctorate in dental hygiene simply do not have that option. Within five years, this notion may become a reality. How cool is that?

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and interim dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, adjunct faculty at Burlington County College and Montgomery County College, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

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