We are public health: The dental hygiene profession fits the definition

Nov. 20, 2015
The dental hygiene profession fits the definition


Recently, while attending an interprofessional meeting with numerous health-care providers, discussion focused on dental hygiene's public health emphasis. The meeting concentrated on public health education, which inevitability focuses on a health systems collaborative approach to result in the best possible health outcomes. There was a brief introduction into the history of dental hygiene and how public health was at its founding core. Discussion included Dr. Fones' vision of "mass pediatric prevention," as he once called this movement. This mass pediatric prevention spotlighted the evolution of school-based dental care delivery.

Dental hygiene has had incredible interprofessional relationships that were built into the practice from day one. Dr. Fones' goal in developing dental hygienists was to create preventive providers to work outside of dental offices to bring dental treatment to patients in need. These providers would ideally work with teachers, nurses, and dentists to ensure comprehensive health practices.

Another interesting concept discussed was the positioning of dental hygienists in private dental offices. Many times dental hygiene in private offices is seen as out of the realm of public health. However, when reflecting on the ways in which public health has been defined, the emphasis is on the concern for the health care of all people. This focus emphasizes the health of a population (which could be a private dental office patient population) as a whole rather than on the treatment of an individual.

The goal of public health is to protect and promote the health of the public across three essential domains-health protection, disease prevention, and health promotion.1 Additionally, public health has been defined as the protection and improvement of the health of individuals, families, communities, and populations, both locally and globally.2

With these descriptions and definitions in mind, it's interesting to note that public health is truly inherent in the overall practice of dental hygiene. In fact, it could be theorized that the positioning of dental hygienists in dental offices is just as important to the public health foundation as initiatives based in other settings. For many reasons, dental hygienists have not focused on defining this setting-which is overwhelmingly the one in which most dental hygienists practice-as "public health." Yet, imagine the influence on the public's health that dental hygienists have had in this setting.

How many times have private practice dental hygienists educated the public on dental health, counseled in nutrition, promoted products that aid in plaque removal, promoted restorative dentistry to decrease infection in the body and restore function, and explained health relationships between a myriad of diseases and oral health? The list could go on regarding the influence that dental hygienists have had on public health.

Frankly, it shouldn't be difficult to identify possible settings of public health if the definition of public health were truly understood. Public health is dental hygiene. Moreover, dental hygiene, as a discipline, is the perfect example of public health science and practice. We must begin educating others and ourselves about our influence and potential impact on the public's health. RDH

CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS, is director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.


1. World Health Organization Public Health Services. http://www.euro.who.int/publichealth/20070319_4
2. Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. http://www.aspph.org/discover/