Working in private practice has long been the traditional role of the dental hygienist. Changes in health care, education, and modes of delivery have created career opportunities beyond practicing chairside. Today, there are many other career paths and niches for professional growth.1 As prevention and education experts, a career in academia is a viable and logical option for dental hygienists to consider.
The clinical environment in which most dental hygienists have been practicing since the 1880s is no longer the only path available for clinicians to use their training and expertise.2 Educating the next generation of dentists is a strategic area in which dental hygienists can make a significant difference. Many visionary dentists recognize the educational background and unique skill sets that dental hygienists can bring to the academic table. They are able to see that dental hygiene is a preventive branch of dentistry in which clinicians are specifically trained to provide a wealth of knowledge—educating and teaching patients both in the community and also in dental and dental hygiene schools.
A VISION OF CHANGE
In 2003, one such leader, Jack Dillenberg, DDS, MPH, had a vision. He foresaw a dental school with an innovative model: a dental school that focused on oral health, whole person health care, and serving the underserved. He recognized dental hygienists’ expertise and their role in promoting and attaining oral health and planned on including dental hygienists as key faculty members at the new dental school he was envisioning: A. T. Still University Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ATSU-ASDOH) in Mesa. Dillenberg’s inclusion of the dental hygienist as an integral part of the faculty at a dental school was revolutionary. ATSU-ASDOH does not have a dental hygiene program, so the hiring of dental hygienists as educators became an even more significant variance from the traditional dental school.
Doors that had previously been closed to dental hygienists began to open. Over the past 15 years, the number of dental hygienist faculty members at ATSU-ASDOH has grown from two to more than 25. The many different roles held by the dental hygienist faculty foster teaching, guiding, and promoting the educational and career paths of future dentists.
QUALIFICATIONS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
At ATSU-ASDOH, dental hygienists are hired as faculty to interact, lead, and instruct dental students in various aspects throughout the 4 years of their clinical professional education. The minimum hiring requirements for dental hygiene faculty are 3 years to 5 years of clinical experience and at least a bachelor’s degree. While the bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement, many of the faculty dental hygienists hold master’s or doctoral degrees.
Using the broad skill set so innate to the profession, dental hygiene educators teach instrumentation, local anesthesia, infection control, prevention, and nonsurgical periodontal therapies, along with various other subjects. Faculty responsibilities include classroom lectures, hands-on lab practice, and clinical supervision as students provide treatment to patients from the community.
Other dental hygiene faculty members facilitate the “Dentistry in the Community” learning modules, where students provide dental screenings, sealants, fluoride, and oral health education in underserved communities. The Clinical Radiology Department at ATSU-ASDOH is almost entirely managed by a team of dental hygienists. Another dental hygienist works with the mobile dentistry program in which dental students provide care to homebound patients.
Dental hygienists collaborate in the Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency Program as students fine-tune their skills for private practice. Working to promote interprofessional partnerships is the focus of a faculty dental hygienist who works through a Health Resources and Services Administration Grant to integrate and bridge the skill set between medical and dental students within the university. Dental students welcome other disciplines into the clinical setting and share the intricacies of the oral cavity through this program. A program led by a dental hygienist allows dental students to visit juvenile detention centers and provide educational programs for their residents.
The attainment of advanced degrees affords yet another layer of opportunity, allowing dental hygienists to hold administrative roles within the university structure, including director of nonsurgical periodontics, associate dean of student assessment, director of research, and director of faculty development, accreditation, and continuing education.
OPPORTUNITIES IN ACADEMIA
The academic world provides venues for faculty members to embrace cutting-edge theories, remain current with research, and try out new products and technologies. Continuing education opportunities are abundant and participation in organizations such as the American Dental Education Association offer educational and collaboration opportunities to explore. University affiliations create connections and increase networking, which may lead to speaking engagements at conferences. These exposures have the potential to open additional doors with even more career paths to consider. Dental hygienists are committed life-long learners and every experience has the potential to promote additional growth. Educators are coaches, mentors, and counselors. They must be passionate about the profession and have immense patience to guide and foster students’ educational journies.
Educators must also remain a step ahead of their students. As such, dental hygienists at ATSU-ASDOH are involved in ongoing study, collaboration, and continued professional growth. The sense of community and teamwork that results from this collective effort fosters a safe and exciting arena in which to grow and flourish personally and professionally.
Due to the dental students’ consistent interactions with dental hygienist faculty, the implementation of the oral health care team is fostered early in their educational careers and becomes an integral part of the practice philosophy. This relationship can influence the perception of student dentists, allowing them to visualize the expanding role of the dental hygienist and, in turn, foster a stronger bond among professionals.
Qualified dental educators are in high demand across the country, with many in the field nearing the age of retirement. The need for new educators will only increase. A career in education offers a different type of personal and professional satisfaction. It involves giving on a daily basis with the returns being multiplied exponentially.
FUTURE OF ORAL HEALTH CARE
The charge is to educate the oral health care providers of the future. What do those individuals look like? What does the future of dental hygiene hold? Where does dental hygiene fit going forward? This could be an opportunity to help shape the future of oral health care. Visualize the dental hygienist co-educating the dentists of the future to enrich the oral health care team while providing quality care. At ATSU-ASDOH, this vision is a reality.
- Braerman M. Roles of the dental hygienist. Access. 2019;33(4):3.
- Fones AC. The origin and history of the dental hygienist. J Dent Hyg. 2013;87(Suppl 1):58–62.
From Perspectives on the Midlevel Practitioner, a supplement to Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. October 2019;6(11):19—21.