Educate Dental Health-Care Providers

The context in which we provide dental hygiene education needs to change.

Sep 1st, 2012

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PHD

The context in which we provide dental hygiene education needs to change. No matter whether the program is housed in a community college or university setting, is two, three, or four years in length, we need to have a serious discussion about what we are creating.

During the past year, I’ve participated in discussions with a variety of dental hygiene educators, both full time and part time. I often find myself wondering when we decided to create human scalers instead of health-care providers. When did we determine that being ruled by a curette was more important than anything else? Reaching a 9 mm pocket and removing that spicule of calculus is now the goal for dental hygienists? Something is very wrong with this picture.

With all the national and international reports that demonstrate our failure to prevent disease and improve the oral health of the public, we continue to feel the need to create an abundance of clinicians. We tell ourselves that we are teaching students critical thinking and problem solving skills. We believe that we are incorporating blended learning and other strategies to help students experience and integrate technology in education and practice. Yet, the majority of our focus is on removing oral debris. We test it unendingly through process and product examinations. Our clinical board exams and licensures are based on clinical expertise, assuming of course that the operatory in a private practice setting is the ideal goal. Is it any wonder we have an image problem and trouble understanding our role in health care?

We cannot contribute to the big picture of changing the health-care system with a nearly 100-year-old model of plaque and calculus management. If ever there was a reason to shift to a four-year dental hygiene education program, creating health-care providers is it.

Before you get too upset, hear me out. I’m not saying we don’t need skilled clinicians. What I’m saying is we need to carefully consider why we teach our students to function in a system that is not effective. We need to educate students to be more than curetters. We need health-care providers who will examine how to best function in a variety of community settings, who can interact with other health-care providers, who can design systems that actually increase access to care, who can reduce the burdens of disease, and who can assess needed changes and implement them.

Our students should be educated to accept a broader view of their role in health care. They should be challenged to create and test new models of health-care delivery. They need to speak more than one language, and learn to use search engines beyond Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! They need to appreciate that what they do should change regularly because society changes, science changes, and hopefully, mindsets change regularly. They cannot acquire that level of awareness without having it taught to them.

And, if you’re wondering how you can educate this new oral health-care provider, it cannot happen in a two-year time frame. The entry-level curriculum is jam packed with dental hygiene science and practice courses. This conceptual framework requires a minimum of a baccalaureate degree.

Once and for all, let’s stop creating barriers and offer the kind of education we know our profession needs. No more bowing to the Commission on Dental Accreditation, a group that is incapable of recognizing even minimal standards set for our profession. No more ignoring the roles of dental hygiene. No more hedging and excuses.

Let’s make 2012 the year we start over. Let’s all agree to redesign dental hygiene education, and make 2015 the year we implement baccalaureate dental hygiene as the minimum entry level. This gives educators three years to establish affiliation agreements and maximize opportunities in all education settings. We have multiple reports suggesting that curricular changes are needed. Let’s not waste more time with debates and wishes. It is time for action. The public deserves this change, and so do our students. RDH

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and interim dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

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