Many practisting dental hygienists will get their wish this autumn. Dalhousie's School of Dental Hygiene is offering its Bachelor of Dental Hygiene program on a part-time basis, making it easier for dental hygienists to advance their education while continuing to work.
“We’ve known for a while that there are many dental hygienists who would like to study for a degree but who aren’t able to take a year off from practice to do it,” says Leigha Rock (below left), director of the School of Dental Hygiene. “This new part-time option will enable them to continue to practise and work towards their degree over two years.”
The part-time option is just one of many changes that have been made to the Bachelor of Dental Hygiene (BDH) program since it was introduced in 2009. The two-year Diploma in Dental Hygiene (DDH) program has been offered through the Faculty of Dentistry for more than 50 years, enabling students to graduate with the skills and knowledge required to become licensed dental hygienists.
In 2007, explains Dr. Rock, there was an interest in offering a bachelor-level degree in dental hygiene that would give students the option to advance their knowledge in dental hygiene and enable them to pursue alternate areas of dental hygiene practice, such as public health. A degree-level program would also give them the academic requirements they needed to continue their education in masters-level programs. Two years later, the Bachelor of Dental Hygiene completion year was added to the dental hygiene program to enable qualified dental hygienists to obtain a degree.
The BDH program has historically provided students with an opportunity to instruct first-year dental hygiene students, undertake a research project, and take part in outreach activities within different practice settings, such as long-term care facilities.
This combination of teaching, research, and outreach has appealed to many students who were interested in pursuing a career in teaching in dental hygiene programs, with many going on to become instructors in the School of Dental Hygiene, says Dr. Rock.
New learning, new experiences
Three years ago, Heather Doucette, an associate professor in the School of Dental Hygiene, began teaching a BDH course — Alternative Practice Settings — for the first time. She started to explore further opportunities for providing students with even more new experiences and skills.
In the first year, a new paediatric experience was added, which included didactic instruction and observation sessions at the IWK hospital. At this location, students were able to observe paediatric oral surgeries and help provide preventative oral care and education to paediatric patients.
More recently, rotations have been added in the graduate periodontal clinic, and last year the BDH students were able to take a restorative dentistry class with first year dentistry students.
The grad periodontal clinic rotation has proved a resounding success. “Students love it,” says Dr. Rock.
What started as an opportunity to observe perio procedures has evolved into a self-contained clinic similar to the small group practice operating in the main dental clinic. The BDH students work alongside the graduate students specializing in periodontics as they treat patients. The BDH students learn about suture placement and removal, periodontal surgeries, such as gingival grafts, and complete dental hygiene treatment in conjunction with periodontal procedures.
A new “Community Practice and Health Promotion” course has also been added to the BDH program. It builds on the longstanding community collaborations the Faculty of Dentistry has with the North End Community Health Centre and the North Preston Dental Clinic, as well as a more recent collaboration with Phoenix Youth. The students have also participated in an internship with Nova Scotia Public Health, during which they helped to deliver the fluoride rinse programs in schools.
Read about some recent grads of the BDH program:
Bachelor of Dental Hygiene paves the way for a teaching career for Nicole MacDonald
Marilyn Harris returned to school in search of a fresh start
These collaborations not only give BDH students the opportunity to provide care to children, adults, and disadvantaged youth from a variety of different backgrounds, but they also offer the students experience in assessing the oral health needs of a particular Halifax community and implementing solutions.
This process, Doucette explains, has the students conducting an oral health needs assessment at each community organization and determining priorities for care. “The students have to determine what actions the organization and dental hygienists need to take to meet the oral health needs of its community better and organize the scheduling of those actions within the academic year.”
The BDH students rotate from location to location, spending six weeks at each one, and take turns in the lead role. For the final six weeks of the term, they return to their original location to evaluate the program that was implemented. “The students learn how to assess needs, roll out a program, manage and evaluate it, plus gain experience at each location,” says Doucette.
Courses in teaching methodology and research methodology complete the course line-up for the degree program. Dr. Rock says that the pandemic actually happened at a “good time” for the development of the part-time BDH because it prompted the creation of new online didactic content.
This content is now a key element in the new part-time BDH program. Students can study some of the didactic components of the degree remotely, giving mature students who want to return to complete their degree greater flexibility in when and where they complete those course requirements. “It removes another barrier to further studies for those students,” says Dr. Rock.
Open for business
The new part-time BDH program will welcome its first intake of students in September 2021. The deadline for applications is March 15. Up to 16 BDH students can be accepted each year. Full-time students will receive preferential acceptance and any remaining spots will be filled with part-time students.
Students who opt for the part-time program take two to three courses per term for two academic years in a prescribed schedule. “Students are not able to mix and match the courses over the two years because full-time and part-time students take the courses together,” says Dr. Rock.
For Dr. Rock and Doucette, the advantages of the BDH program are clear. “Dental hygiene is a profession with a high injury rate,” says Doucette. “The pandemic has also highlighted the vulnerability of our profession because many dental hygienists have been unable to work. The BDH opens up other opportunities in teaching, public health, and other careers.”
“The BDH really is a stepping-stone to new avenues for dental hygiene students,” adds Dr. Rock. “And it helps to bolster our profession. Students with the BDH can go on to masters and other degree programs. To think that we have increased accessibility to these opportunities for a whole new group of people is so exciting.”
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