Prepared to serve the public

Feb. 1, 2004
Education answers the call for dental hygiene in public health.

by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS

The dental hygiene sciences have a strong relationship with dental public health. Dental hygienists are increasingly becoming important players in dental public health practice and policy development. In fact, legislative changes recently enacted will have an unprecedented effect on the practice of dental public health. Dental hygienists have the ability to position their profession into many areas in order to improve the oral health of Americans.

Historically, dental hygiene has collaborated with dental public health. Dr. Alfred Fones, the founder of dental hygiene, actually envisioned dental hygienists as public health outreach workers. Fones stated:

"Neither medical nor dental professionals have succeeded in spreading to any great extent the laws of health and disease prevention. Experience has shown that health education can be carried out most efficiently by specially trained and educated teachers. It was for this type of service that the dental hygienist was created. She is the worker trained to spread popular health education and prophylactic service to aid in the prevention of dental disease. Utilizing this logic, it is important that dental hygienists receive adequate education and evaluation in the dental public health sciences."

According to the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation, the dental hygiene curriculum consists of general content of the theoretical and practical sciences. Figure 1 depicts these content areas and includes the mean number of averages. 1 Approximately 259 dental hygiene programs are represented in this data. Click here to view data tables.

Dental hygienists receive 113.2 hours of community dental health education. This is the third highest number of content hours following clinical dental hygiene and periodontology, respectively (See Figure 2).

Moreover, hygienists' dental public health knowledge is evaluated by the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Figure 3 depicts the topics covered.2 "Community health/research principles" is the title of the dental public health questions on the board exam. There are 20 dental public health questions on the current boards, which comprise about 10 percent of the exam.

Interestingly, with all the changes in supervisory status, many states will experience this unprecedented effect on the practice of dental public health. Dental hygiene's ability to react proactively to these changes can have a tremendous effect on the practice of dental public health in the United States.3

Dental hygienists have the background in dental public health sciences necessary to contribute and expand the theory and practice of dental public health.

1 Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental Hygiene Curriculum Data. Chicago: American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation, 2002.
2 Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations. National Board Dental Hygiene Examination Candidate Guide 2003. Chicago: American Dental Association, Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, 2003.
3 Nathe, CN. Dental Public Health: Contemporary Practice for the Dental Hygienist. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is an associate professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico Division of Dental Hygiene in Albuquerque. She can be contacted at [email protected].