November 19, 2019
by Natalie Muccioli Emery, RDH, BHA
Historical thinking about the role of the dental hygienist as a member of the health care team is that their purpose is primarily auxiliary or clinical.1 However, a paradigm shift in the profession has been in process for several years.2 The shift in dental hygiene emphasizes the roles of educator and health promotor as primary roles, giving these roles as much significance as the traditional clinical role. This emerging multidimensional view of dental hygienists seems to align with the growing body of evidence highlighting the many ways oral and overall health are linked.3
With increased knowledge of oral and overall health linkages, dental hygienists will become more proficient at providing resources to clients who would benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to health care. Therefore, the dental hygienist may act as a trusted resource provider for the community and colleagues.
What does it mean to be a trusted resource provider? Traditionally, when a dental hygienist recognizes a condition that requires a dental diagnosis, medical diagnosis or consultation from another health care professional, a referral is provided.4 However, acting as a trusted resource provider elevates the referral process to a collaborative process where the dental hygienist becomes further integrated into the community and a partner on the interdisciplinary healthcare team.
Embracing the role of a trusted resource provider can feel daunting. However, starting with the simple steps of awareness of available resources, knowledge of the needs of local communities, and commitment to increasing dental hygienists’ profile in the community can set the wheels in motion. By using these steps as a starting point, dental hygienists can be well on their way to experiencing an exciting and impactful dimension of their role as a health care provider.
Acquisition of knowledge is an essential first step when the dental hygienist has committed to exploring the role of trusted resource provider. There are numerous, accessible, high-quality resources available for dental hygienists, covering topics such as oral health and overall health linkages, oral health and the aging population, resources for caregivers, and sensitive issues such as abuse and neglect. Dental hygienists can access several of these resources through their professional associations. These resources include webinars, courses and links to other reliable organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Canadian Interprofessional Health Collaborative.5 The key to realizing success as a trusted resource provider is to be able to anticipate what resources clients may require. To expect what resources clients may require, the dental hygienist must establish an understanding of the needs of the local community which they serve.
It is necessary to note this does not mean that dental hygienists need to be well versed on every single topic where they may potentially need to act as a resource provider, that level of expectation is unrealistic. However, dental hygienists can hone their resource providing skills through understanding the needs of their community and effective therapeutic communication. Local Public Health Units provide up to date health surveillance and epidemiological data presented in a ready to interpret format.6 In larger metropolitan centers, data about the needs of an area is often further broken down by neighbourhood, providing insight on potential community needs. For example, if a dental hygienist finds their practice setting in an area that experiences a heavy burden of diabetes, the dental hygienist can anticipate that clients affected by or at risk for diabetes may benefit from additional resources related to their condition.7 When a situation arises where a dental hygienist is unsure of what resources may be beneficial for a client, consider going back to the first step and acquire the knowledge and assess what is available. There is nothing wrong with saying to a client, “let me do some research and get back to you” or “I am not sure, but I know someone who might be able to help.” The client will appreciate the honesty, communication and commitment to collaborative practice of their dental hygienist.
Lastly, and most importantly, the role of the dental hygienist in the community is fundamental to realizing the full potential of the benefits related to acting as a trusted resource provider. Arbitrarily dispensing information to clients with no follow-through will have little to no impact on improving health outcomes.8 Where acting as a trusted resource provider differs is in the element of the trust itself. Trust is defined as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something” or “one in which confidence is placed”.9 The dental hygienist can help to build trust through community engagement.10 Examples of community engagement include; participation in community-building initiatives such as events related to the local chapter of the Canadian Diabetes Association, charitable events such as the Gift from the Heart project and fostering meaningful connections with community members. Even a simple action such as wearing dental hygiene flare can spark a conversation about the role of the dental hygienist on the health care team.
Acting as a trusted resource provider is an exciting and rewarding facet of dental hygiene practice, no matter what practice setting the dental hygienist may find themselves. Working as a trusted resource provider provides the dental hygienist with an opportunity to expand their knowledge base, enhance understanding of community health needs and actively engage in the community in various capacities to improve health outcomes.
About the Author
Natalie Muccioli Emery is a dental hygiene educator at Oxford College, she is dedicated to addressing oral health inequalities and issues surrounding access to oral health care. She received her bachelor’s degree in Health Administration, Health Services Management from Ryerson University and worked in private dental practice for 12 years. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Gift from the Heart project. Natalie hopes for a future where dental hygienists will be valued members of interdisciplinary health care teams helping to improve overall health outcomes.