By Gisela Campuzano, SDH; Jessi Fugate, SDH; Xareez Ramos, SDH; and Gail Aamodt MS, RDH
Dental assistants share a common work environment with dental hygienists and dentists. It is not uncommon for a dental assistant to pursue a career in dental hygiene or dentistry by continuing his or her education in an accredited dental or dental hygiene program. In many dental hygiene programs, having a background in dental assisting may be an advantage in the dental hygiene application process. In fact, 46% of accredited dental hygiene programs use previous dental office experience as one of the criteria in the admissions process.1 Do dental assistants make better hygienists?
The transition into a dental hygiene program is always a challenge. Some research suggests that having a dental assisting background may help aid in the transition.2,3 A previous background in dental assisting provides the individual with knowledge and skills in radiology, dental terminology, patient management, dental materials/instruments, and working in a team environment. Although research has shown that dental assisting experience may aid with the transition into a dental hygiene program, most dental hygiene programs do not require previous dental assisting experience to gain admission into program. However, experience may be beneficial. In Oregon, it was found that every dental hygiene admissions application asked if the applicant had previous dental assisting experience, implying that they value the prior knowledge and experience of a dental assistant. However, the weight dental assisting carries in the application process varies greatly between programs.
It has been found that dental assisting experience may impact the overall experience of a dental hygiene student. In 1980, Old Dominion University sent out a survey to dental hygiene students and alumni to ascertain if prior dental assisting experience positively impacted their experience in the dental hygiene program. All participants agreed that prior dental assisting experience “aided or would have aided in dental hygiene skill development.”4 A publication by Wurtz in 1979 determined that employers value dental assisting experience during the hiring process and an individual with a background in dental assisting may be more likely to get a job upon graduation.3 The authors were able to demonstrate a positive correlation between dental assisting experience and clinical GPA in the first semester of dental hygiene school. However, there was no evidence in the research to support benefits extending into the second or third year. Most research found that GPA scores were a better factor in determining success in a dental hygiene program.5
Since the available research was over 20 years old, a survey was developed to help determine the impact of prior dental assisting experience on a student’s performance while in a dental hygiene program, as well as securing a dental hygiene position after graduation. The survey was sent to the Pacific University’s dental hygiene alumni, and all dental hygiene program directors in the state of Oregon (the intention being to further distribute the survey to their respective full and part-time dental hygiene faculty). Seventy-five dental hygiene alumni participated in the survey, of which 30 (40%) of the participants self-identified as having prior dental assisting experience. Of the 75 participants, 55 (75%) thought that dental assisting experience helped or would have helped their overall experience during their dental hygiene education, and 32 (42%) thought that previous dental assisting experience helped or would have helped in securing a dental hygiene position right out of dental hygiene school. Interestingly, when asked if the participants would recommend dental hygiene applicants to pursue dental assisting prior to a dental hygiene program, 53 (71%) responded no. Furthermore, 49 (67%) did not think that applicants with dental assisting experience should receive advanced standing in the application process for admission into a dental hygiene program.
Nine dental hygiene faculty participated in the survey. All of the faculty participants were able to identify students with previous dental assisting experience. Of the nine faculty, three (33%) thought that dental assisting experience would improve a student’s performance in a dental hygiene program and would help a student in securing a job position upon graduation. Eight (89%) did not think that dental hygiene applicants with a dental assisting background should receive advanced standing in the application process.
Although the results mirrored the 1980s study, the responses were puzzling. Upon further discussion with dental hygiene faculty, more information came to light. Multiple faculty felt that all dental hygiene students will eventually end up on the same level within the first year of practice regardless if they had previous dental assisting experience. They brought up an interesting observation whereby a student with dental assisting experience may have developed habits that are not necessarily helpful during the dental hygiene program. Lastly, recommending dental hygiene applicants pursue dental assisting prior to a dental hygiene program would require an extra year of education, and therefore increase overall costs to their education. Even though the majority of the alumni participants thought dental assisting would have helped their overall experience during their dental hygiene education, it was found that dental assisting prior to dental hygiene program was not deemed necessary.
Literature and survey results vary on the benefits of having prior dental assisting experience before entering a dental hygiene program. Based on the evidence, there are short-term benefits that increase success during the first semester. However, it should not be mandatory to require students to go through dental assisting school due to additional cost and schooling. Initially, dental assisting experience may help, but with time all students end up at the same level. One might assume that the more information a student has about dentistry prior to entering dental hygiene program, the more well-rounded he or she will be during the course of dental dental hygiene education. However, with more time, proper training, and rigorous education, all students will have the same knowledge base and will be able to demonstrate competency in all clinical skills and patient care.
- Sanderson TR, Lorentzen MH. Exploring pre admission criteria as predictors for dental hygiene licensure examinations pass rates. Journal of Dental Hygiene. 2015;89(2):101-108.
- DeAngelis S, Goral V. Dental assisting experience as a predictor of dental hygiene performance. Journal of Dental Hygiene. 1995;69(4):170-173.
- Wurtz F. Dental assisting experience: Is it valuable for dental hygiene students? Educational Directions. Volume 4, issue 2. Published May 1979. Retrieved October 20, 2018.
- Cunningham M, Darby M. Dental assisting: Influence on hygienists and students. Educational Directions. Volume 5, issue 1. Published February 1980. Retrieved October 20, 2018.
- Rudy, JO, Singleton JA, Lewis LH, Quick RN. Admissions criteria that influence dental hygiene students' performance on board examinations. Journal of Dental Hygiene. 2017;91(1):1-12.