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The Value of Interprofessional Education

Dental hygienists with an interprofessional education are able to provide patient care in concert with nurse practitioners, physical therapists, physicians, and other health care providers.

Economic, political, demographic, and sociologic forces are challenging current health-care delivery models in the United States.1 New and available forms of health care coverage that focus on prevention and primary care are increasing.2 The burgeoning population of older adults often presents with complex health histories. Research continues to substantiate the oral/systemic link and the use of technology for off-site communication. New provider models and increased scopes of practice are evolving with regularity.3,4 How can the profession of dental hygiene prepare itself for these changes?

Experts in health care delivery, academicians, and researchers have studied the aforementioned forces and assessed their effects on the health-care delivery system. These groups and others have ascertained that collaborative practice is an approach to health care delivery that is cost-effective, accessible, and focused on prevention and primary care.5 A team-based and collaborative approach to health care could reduce costs, improve patient outcomes, enhance provider communication, and raise quality of care.

The success of collaborative practice rests on interprofessional education (IPE), which occurs when members or students of two or more professions associated with health or social care engage in learning with, from, and about each other. IPE facilitates the sharing of skills and knowledge between professions, which promotes improved understanding, shared values, and respect for the roles of other health care professionals.

With practice act changes, evolving societal needs, new technology, and governmental directives, the future of dental hygiene is promising and dynamic. To ensure dental hygiene’s place in collaborative models and to help others learn about the dental hygienist’s scope of practice, dental hygiene educators are exploring ways to add IPE activities to their curricula. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) and the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) are driving initiatives that promote IPE and collaboration. In many program settings, dental hygiene students already are learning with nursing, physical therapy, social work, medical, and pharmacy students. Dental hygienists are joining research teams of neuroscientists, nurses, psychologists, and experts in ventilator-acquired pneumonia.


Current practitioners may not envision a return to academia to pursue formal education in interprofessional practice. Regardless, opportunities abound daily that can nurture a collaborative practice. Many clinicians encounter patients with systemic conditions that may have oral manifestations and/or pose risks to oral health.

Dental hygienists need to educate their patients about the oral-systemic link and oral risk indicators of systemic conditions. In this capacity, dental hygienists can serve as liaisons to their patients’ other primary care providers. Dental hygiene practitioners can capitalize on new technologies and provide chairside testing for diabetes and/or human immunodeficiency virus. Blood pressure monitoring should be a standard of care in dental hygiene practice. Patients can be referred for follow-up and lives can be saved. Polypharmacy among older adults provides another chance for collaboration. Identifying drug interactions or the presence of xerostomia can prompt a dental hygienist’s communication with a pharmacist, physician, or nurse practitioner. Another chance for collaboration is with obstetricians and gynecologists to ensure that pregnant patients receive the appropriate and necessary preventive and restorative care.

Dental hygienists working outside of the private practice setting also can make efforts to interact with other providers. With the combined efforts of ADHA and ADEA, practitioners ready to earn a baccalaureate degree will likely enter programs that include an interprofessional component. Some dental hygiene programs already are offering those types of learning experiences. Continuing education also offers a venue for additional learning. Other examples corroborate that collaborative practice is growing. Progressive states, such as Colorado, are implementing a model that puts dental hygienists in community clinics working collaboratively with pediatricians. In these settings, dental hygienists work to establish health homes for children. Dental hygienists are triaging with nurses to provide preventive care for older adults in long-term care facilities, educating nursing staff about providing oral care to their patients, and, in remote site facilities, providing oral health care services to patients and communicating with other providers through distance technology.

As societal forces continue to impact health care delivery, dental hygienists’ exposure to IPE, participation in collaborative learning experiences, and adoption of collaborative practice philosophies will help ensure their readiness to transition successfully into new practice environments.


  1. World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2008, Primary Care, Now More Than Ever. Available at: Accessed September 24, 2014.
  2. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Dental Hygiene at the Crossroads of Change: Environmental Scan 2011-2012. Available at: Accessed September 24, 2014.
  3. Phillips E, Shaefer HL. Dental therapists: evidence of technical competence. J Dent Res. 2013;92(Suppl 7):11S–15S.
  4. Mertz E, Glassman P. Alternative practice dental hygiene in California: past, present, and future. J Calif Dent Assoc. 2011:39:37–46.
  5. Institute of Medicine. Improving Access to Oral Health Care for Vulnerable and Underserved Populations. Available at: Underserved-Populations.aspx. Accessed September 24, 2014.

From Perspectives on Dental Hygiene, a supplement to Dimensions of Dental HygieneNovember 2014;12(11):46–47.

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