by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
One interesting facet of dental public health is the dental workforce, which of course includes dental hygienists. I know I’m biased, but I feel that Americans are very fortunate to have dental hygienists, since only 25 countries in the world experience the benefits of having dental hygienists. Moreover, dental hygienists are educated health-care providers with a comprehensive focus on prevention, which is unique to both medicine and dentistry.
In fact, dental hygiene is growing. It is speculated to be one of the fastest growing professions in the United States. I remember about a decade ago I was talking with my father-in-law, a dentist. I was complaining that many associations were emphasizing the launching of dental hygiene programs in every single community college in every state I ever lived. I was upset because in most communities where I had lived, there was an abundance of dental hygienists for private practices. I wondered why there was a need for more. Also, it was odd to me that these programs were all starting in colleges that offered only associate degrees. In fact, there seemed to be a push to create associate degree programs, even in cities that already had bachelor degree programs. I was frustrated.
My father-in-law offered some very good points. He said if the programs were indeed created, there would eventually be more dental hygienists than dentists, and this would give dental hygiene power to change the restrictions keeping dental hygiene from the masses. He was right. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen many changes in restrictions. In fact, most states offer some form of practice allowing dental hygienists to practice outside of a private office and without a dentist’s supervision. I remember taking very seriously the days of direct supervision, when I had to make sure the dentist was in the office and not out to lunch when I was treating a patient. Imagine! And of course, without more hygienists, we would never have witnessed the increase in treatment of children in schools that we’ve seen the past decade. Many of these children would not be receiving dental hygiene care and follow-up dental care if it were not for these programs!
Next, my father-in-law postulated that when there were too many dental hygienists than could be employed in private practices, they would start diligently creating positions for themselves in schools, nursing homes and other settings, which would help create access points to dental hygiene and dental services. He was right! It’s working, and we’re changing our practice environments for the right reasons.
Another positive side effect of having many hygienists is that we now need more graduate-level dental hygienists to teach in these programs, so what has happened is that there are more graduate programs in dental hygiene in universities. In fact, in the past decade graduate programs have increased from about five to at least 11 programs, with more on the way. This should lead to more research in dental hygiene, which will increase the knowledge base of the science and ultimately improve our practice.
As the number of associate degree programs has increased, so have the graduate degree programs. In addition, dental hygienists are embracing dental public health, and many are starting initiatives that provide much needed preventive care and referral mechanisms for follow-up dental care in many states. I believe that as a profession we are making progress reaching out to the masses!
About the Author
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.N. 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 cnathe @salud.unm.edu or (505) 272-8147