by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
One common thread I have noticed when interviewing dental hygienists who have fulfilling careers through their service to the public’s health is that they all have advanced their education beyond an associate’s degree or certificate. And yes, I know, this may not be a popular subject to write about, considering that most dental hygienists have not advanced their education beyond this entry-level status.
In fact, I believe that in dental hygiene we are offering associate’s degrees or certificates that are not commensurate with the time and effort needed to complete the degree. Dental hygiene science has greatly expanded from the scientific foundation upon which dental hygiene was established in the early 1900s. I feel that today’s dental hygiene education should take at least four years to complete (or as often is the case in many entry-level programs, three very heavily loaded years with little to show for it in terms of credit hours completed). I concur with the recommendations of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association’s “Focus on Advancing the Profession” paper, which states that we should implement the baccalaureate degree as the entry point for dental hygiene practice within five years. I believe this can be accomplished with defined articulations between colleges and universities without closing programs. However, as it stands today, it is still necessary to advance our profession by advancing our educational levels.
Many dental hygienists call or e-mail me because they have read or heard about a public health position and want to know more. They have questions such as: How do I get in public health? Where do I start?
The best advice I have is to advance your education! Most definitely, a bachelor’s degree provides more opportunities, and I have never heard of a dental hygienist with a bachelor’s degree or higher who is unhappy about the choice to continue his or her education. However, I do know many hygienists who feel unfulfilled with their current educational level and would like to have more career options available to them.
Although many positions in public health are available to those with an entry-level degree, many more opportunities become available when a dental hygienist has a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. For instance, an entry-level position in the United States Public Health Service requires a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or related discipline.
I believe the American public values education, and the more educated dental hygienists become, the more the public will value our expertise and rely on our advice. Importantly, individuals with advanced degrees are more likely to be involved in the development of policies, rules, and laws that can have a positive influence on dental care delivery. With the huge oral health disparities witnessed in our country, dental hygienists with advanced degrees can have a positive influence on solutions to these issues. Ultimately, the reason to advance the dental hygiene profession by increasing our education levels is to better serve the public.
If you truly feel a passion for dental hygiene and health care, there is no more appropriate advanced degree than one in dental hygiene. If you strive to increase your opportunities in dental hygiene, then it is logical to receive your degree in dental hygiene. Further, if you want to be an expert in dental hygiene, continue your education. There are numerous distance-learning programs available. For more information on degree completion programs and master’s programs in dental hygiene, visit www.adha.org/careerinfo/.
For more information on the ADHA’s “Focus on Advancing the Profession” Report, visit www.adha.org.
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health,” (www.prenhall.com/nathe), which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.