Dental Hygienists: Connectors of Oral Health to General Health

Kim T. Isringhausen, MPH

If the first vision that comes to mind when you think “dental hygienist” is your dentist’s office, that’s terrific, but there is a larger story to tell. According to a 2017 Journal of Dental Education article, by 2040, “…many more [dental hygienists] will practice with multidisciplinary health care teams in large-group dental and medical practices and in a variety of nontraditional community settings.”

Often the first line of defense for dental patients—in oral education services, preventive care and disease assessment—is their dental hygienist. In honor of National Dental Hygiene Month, it’s a good time to highlight the critical role that dental hygienists play in connecting oral health to overall general health by detecting early signs of many diseases as they manifest in the oral cavity. As health care-delivery models for patient services expand nationally—to nursing homes, Federally Qualified Health Centers, free clinics, and more—dental hygienists, often in consultation with dentists and other health care providers, occupy an increasingly critical role in bridging the access-to-care gap.

The idea of dental hygienists working outside of dental offices is not new. In fact, the dental hygiene profession came about because a Connecticut dentist, Dr. Alfred C. Fones, thought that dental care should be brought forward to medical practice. He envisioned dental hygienists in physicians’ offices and in schools, doing outreach work in prevention and education.

A “real world” 21st century example follows: A dental hygienist may work in a pediatrician’s office to talk with families about oral health care and prevention. Dental hygiene goes well beyond teeth and gums—we are now seeing a shift in this country in the etiology and demographics of oral and pharyngeal cancers, due to the HPV virus. In a pediatrician’s office, the dental hygienist could be the best person to talk to a parent about an HPV vaccine for their child, as many Americans may not realize the connection between the HPV virus and oral and pharyngeal cancers.

Research shows that expanded dental care-delivery models are increasing patients’ access to care. In a 2016 article published by the Journal of Evidence-Based Dental Practice, “Bringing preventive and restorative dental services to the patient both in the medical home and in the community has potential to reduce long-standing barriers to receiving these services, improve oral health outcomes of vulnerable patients, and decrease oral health disparities.”

In many states, expanded care-delivery models are emerging. For example, in Oregon, Expanded Practice Permits allow Expanded Practice Dental Hygienists to provide care to populations with limited access to dental care. A 2015 Journal of Dental Hygiene article on the Oregon model indicates that “…practicing EPDHs reported providing significant numbers of services to underserved populations…and are making an impact [in the state] on the access-to-care crisis.”

The role of a dental hygienist centers on maintenance of oral health and prevention of oral disease. If you start thinking about all the different areas where oral health touches general health—it’s the perfect place for a dental hygienist to be.

Kim T. Isringhausen, MPH, is Board Director for Allied Dental Program Directors at the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and Associate Professor; Assistant Dean, Community & Collaborative Partnerships at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry.

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