Does the dental hygiene profession create a barrier by not pushing for bachelor’s and advanced degrees?

By Christine Nathe, RDH, MS

Much is published about access to care in the dental literature. In fact, access to care and barriers that might prevent populations from accessing care are taught in dental hygiene school. Additionally, legislative initiatives aimed at improving access to care routinely highlight the role of dental hygienists in primary dental care, as well as the integration of dental hygienists in medical settings.

Recently, at a University of New Mexico, School of Medicine (UNM SOM) Health Profession’s Retreat, the keynote speaker, Martha Cole McGrew, MD, who is the executive dean at the university’s medical school, discussed current issues in medical care. What struck me was a statement she made about access to care for patients. She stated that, indeed, professions themselves sometimes create barriers to care. One example she gave was creating a myriad of visits a patient must complete to access physical therapy. This certainly does create a barrier to care. How many times has the complexity and number of visits deterred one of us from accessing medical care?

If this statement about creating barriers to care focused on dental hygiene care, what would the answer look like? How does dental hygiene create barriers to care? More importantly, how do we prevent barriers to care created by dental hygiene?

The first barrier that we help create is the education of future dental hygienists. Do we ensure that all dental hygienists graduate ready to assume roles in public health, with the skill sets to develop positions in primary care clinics, schools and community health centers? I do not think that any dental hygienist would be able to state that, as a profession, we do this. Updating the accreditation standards to ensure competence in these skill sets is mandatory if we want to ensure future dental hygienists can initiate practices in these settings.

Although the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) has advocated for an entry-level BSDH degree, some in dental hygiene still oppose this progression. How do we help educate our own members that a well-rounded graduate will help advance our science and practice? The increase in continuing education courses, on both local and national platforms, focusing on the advancement of dental hygiene science, scholarly identity of a dental hygienists and the natural progression of health professions should be a focus of dental hygiene.