Despite its integral function in the field of oral health care, many are unaware that the role of the dental hygienist goes beyond cleaning teeth. In celebration of National Dental Hygienists Week this April, we take a closer look at the dental hygienist’s scope of practice and the crucial work they do in furthering oral health for total health.
An evolving profession
As a relatively new field, dental hygiene has evolved significantly throughout its short history. In 1947, dental hygiene was first legally recognized as a profession in Ontario1. Four years later, the University of Toronto began offering a two-year dental hygiene diploma program, with the inaugural class consisting of a mere six students1. In 1993, Ontario became the first province to recognize dental hygiene as a self-regulated profession; and in 2007, Ontario amended the Dental Hygiene Act, allowing registered dental hygienists to clean patients’ teeth without the presence of a dentist1.
Fast forward to 2019 and nearly 30,000 dental hygienists are practicing across the country, with a demand for qualified professionals sharply rising. Dental hygienists are now recognized as primary health care providers with the authority to practice independently in clinical settings.
The profession has come a long way from routine teeth cleaning. “Gone are the days of scaling and prophy.” Says Elaine Powell, Registered Dental Hygienist and Practice Auditor at dentalcorp. “It is now about the gathering of assessment data to provide oral health support for a lifetime.”
First line of defense
The field of dental hygiene goes far beyond keeping our teeth clean – it plays a very important role in preventative health care. Our oral health is deeply connected to our general health, and the conditions within our mouths can signal more serious issues within our bodies. This relationship is known as the oral-systemic link, and dental hygienists act as a first line of defense by screening for life-threatening diseases—including oral cancer/human papillomavirus (HPV), diabetes, kidney diseases and cardiovascular/heart disease—with the goal of early detection.
Through their comprehensive understanding of each patient’s medical history, oral implications and the effects on the overall body, dental hygienists play a pivotal role in preventative health. As Powell explains, “Dental hygienists observe gingival tissue and note differences in colour, texture and resiliency, putting them in a unique position to assess changes in health.”
Dental hygienists also possess the unique opportunity to assess patients’ health at regular intervals for significant periods of time. On average, dental hygienists spend 45-60 minutes with each patient – a far greater length of time compared to other health care professionals.
A collaborative approach
Dental hygienists work in concert with all practice team members in the best interest of patients. One team member alone cannot fulfill all pieces of the puzzle in the dental care of a patient, but together can achieve optimal patient care as a team.
Dental hygienists have the opportunity to further collaborate with a diverse range of health care professionals outside of oral health, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, to advance patient care. For instance, they can assess blood pressure and refer to a physician if it is high, work with nephrologists to ensure that patients on dialysis maintain their dentition and healthy diets and provide oral care to cancer patients undergoing treatment.
Powell further emphasizes the importance of increasing awareness and understanding of the role of dental hygiene among other health care professionals, stating, “Patient care is part of the dental hygiene treatment plan and dental hygienists need to ensure that all heath care professionals are aware of our scope of practice, in order to work together to provide the best possible care to patients.”
About the Author
Jennifer Turner is an awarding-winning Dental Hygienist and current Director of Dental Hygiene Programs at dentalcorp. She is a past President of Council at the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario and the former Director of Dental Hygiene Practice for the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association. Jennifer is a professional speaker, former professor of dental hygiene and champion of oral health.