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Transforming Education

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association is working to ensure educational programs are adequately preparing dental hygienists for the new health care landscape.

The dental hygiene profession was founded on the promotion of oral health and the prevention of disease for children in school-based settings. Today, dental hygienists are primary oral care practitioners who have contributed to the dental health of Americans for more than 100 years. Educational changes have occurred over time; however, the current dental hygiene curriculum was designed to meet the oral health needs of a 20th-century patient base, rather than the requirements of today’s 21st-century patient. Clinical competence has remained the primary educational focus for application in the private dental practice setting. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) is leading the effort to transform dental hygiene education to meet today’s health care demands.

In September 2015, the ADHA published the landmark paper “Transforming Dental Hygiene Education and the Profession for the 21st Century.”1 The white paper showcases the evolution of the dental hygiene profession, outlines the need to enhance and refocus the dental hygiene curriculum to help address the public’s changing health care needs, and details the critical role dental hygienists play in providing care in an increasingly integrated health care system.

Dental hygienists are educated and licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In order to gain licensure, dental hygienists must graduate from one of the nation’s accredited dental hygiene education programs and then pass both a national written examination and a state or regional clinical examination. The average entry-level dental hygiene education program is 84 credits, or about 3 academic years.2 Master’s degrees in dental hygiene are offered by 21 universities.2 In 48 states and the District of Columbia, dental hygienists must complete a set number of continuing education credit hours as part of the licensure renewal process to maintain and demonstrate continued professional competence.3

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) publishes the guidelines and requirements for accredited dental hygiene programs in its “Accreditation Standards for Dental Hygiene Education Programs.” CODA standards include essential content areas that provide key foundations for future dental hygiene practice, including health promotion, disease prevention, clinical practice, and community service.4 However, due to the significant changes in societal needs, advances in technology, new research highlighting the oral-systemic link, and the growing complexity of the health care delivery system, current educational standards will need to expand to better prepare future oral health practitioners.5 The dental hygiene curriculum must change to provide dental hygienists with the education necessary to address the oral health needs of diverse populations and improve access to care. Advanced education and training within interprofessional teams will prepare dental hygienists to better fulfill these needs. Transforming dental hygiene education is an essential component of the ADHA’s vision for the integration of dental hygienists into the health care delivery system as essential primary care providers.6 This future will depend on a transformed educational foundation that prepares dental hygienists for these new roles in the greater continuum of health care in order to improve the public’s oral and overall health.


The ADHA and the Academy for Academic Leadership (AAL) have facilitated a pilot project with seven dental hygiene schools to create change within their academic programs. Participants include the dental hygiene programs at Eastern Washington University (EWU), Idaho State University, Miami Dade College, University of Detroit Mercy, University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of New Mexico, and Vermont Technical College (VTC). Dental hygiene program faculty members have focused on preparing dental hygiene students for future practice environments. Two of the pilots—EWU and VTC—illustrate the types of curricular transformations initiated by the pilot groups.

Currently, EWU offers two baccalaureate-level dental hygiene paths—an entry-level program and a degree-completion option for practicing dental hygienists. Changes to EWU’s curriculum include the addition of courses on leadership development, health policy, advocacy, ethics. business and risk management, as well as the removal of unnecessary subject areas.

At VTC, the administration has approved a “3 plus 1” dental hygiene program to replace the traditional 2-year associate degree program. The new program is a 3-year associate degree program and a 1-year Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene online completion program. The first 3 years of coursework are completed on campus and the final year is completed online.

The ADHA and the AAL are continuing to drive the transformation of dental hygiene education by working with a second cohort of dental hygiene programs in the fall of 2015.


Dental hygiene educators are preparing the next generation of dental hygienists to enter a health care environment that is radically different from just a few years ago. According to Ann Battrell, MSDH, the ADHA’s chief executive officer, “By developing and instituting a new educational curriculum, grounded in science and with an interprofessional focus on contemporary delivery strategies, we can go a long way to improving access to care for the public and advancing the dental hygiene profession.” To read more about the transformation of dental hygiene education, visit


  1. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Transforming Dental Hygiene Education and the Profession for the 21st Century. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.
  2. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Dental Hygiene Education: Curricula, Program Enrollment, and Graduate Information. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.
  3. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Overview of CE Requirements for Dental Hygiene Licensure Renewal. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.
  4. Commission on Dental Accreditation. Accreditation Standards for Dental Hygiene Education Programs. American Dental Association [Internet]. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.
  5. US Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. Transforming Dental Hygiene Education, Proud Past, Unlimited Future: Proceedings of a Symposium. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.
  6. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. American Dental Hygienists’ Association Strategic Plan. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2015.

From Perspectives on the Midlevel Practitioner, a supplement to Dimensions of Dental HygieneOctober 2015;12(10):26–27.

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