Dental hygienists play key role in oral health care

Confederation College’s Dental Hygiene program accepts up to 30 students every year. Ninety per cent of them pass their national exam on the first attempt.

Confederation College offers unique externships

Unique circumstances have helped develop a one-of-a-kind Dental Hygiene program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. The relatively new facilities, including a Dental Sim Lab, innovative externships, and an emphasis on Indigenous oral health care are just a few of the ways the program stands out.

“We’re the only Dental Hygiene program that has Indigenous learning outcomes,” said Trudi Enstrom, program co-ordinator at Confederation College.

One of those initiatives is the Tele-Oral Health externship delivered through the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) and supported by Health Canada. About once per month, students connect with various First Nations through videoconferencing to provide information about oral health. The audience can be children, health-care workers, or other members of a First Nation community.

Just as high school students in Ontario need volunteer hours to graduate, students enrolled in the Dental Hygiene program are required to choose a volunteer project as part of their curriculum.

“They have to volunteer for something every semester. They have to give back,” Enstrom said. It also provides valuable hands-on experience, and gives them a deeper understanding of oral health. “It teaches them about advocacy. The more they go to these externships, the more they realize the lack of access to care and the lack of ability to afford treatment.”

Another volunteer program is the Cleft Lip and Palate/Craniofacial Northern Outreach Dental Clinic in partnership with the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. The students become part of a multidisciplinary team of local and out-of-town oral health professionals who provide specialized care for children from infancy to 18 years of age.

“It provides our students with the opportunity to be involved in a first-rate interprofessional practice and enhances their understanding of cleft lip and palate craniofacial care,” said Shane Strickland, associate dean, Confederation College.

The externships also help dental hygiene students develop their skills.

“We don’t have a (professional school of dentistry) here so we use our externships. We are the only Dental Hygiene program with the Tele-Oral Health and Holland Bloorview externships,” Enstrom said.

The Dental Hygiene program is a three-year, six-semester advanced diploma program. Up to 30 students are accepted each year. Class size drops through attrition year over year, but the graduation rate is 100 per cent in the third year. Graduates then go on to write the National Dental Hygiene Certification Examination (NDHCE). According to Enstrom, approximately 90 per cent of program graduates pass the national exam on first attempt, which is in line with the provincial average.

Allison Heerema, one recent Dental Hygiene graduate, knew she wanted to go into health care, and heard about the Dental Hygiene program while researching her options.

“I saw that you can really make a difference as a hygienist,” Heerema said. “When you’re done your work, you can actually see what you’ve done in someone’s mouth.”

Heerema said that she will likely find a job in a dental office, but isn’t ruling out going out on her own once she has some experience. Heerema hopes to stay in Thunder Bay, her hometown, but she said she would be willing to move to wherever she can get a job.

The Dental Hygiene program at Confederation College is housed within the Regional Education Alliance for Community Health (REACH) building, which opened in 2011. The Dental Sim Lab features 30 lifelike stations complete with a chair and all the necessary equipment.

Dental hygienists play an important role in oral health.

“In the past, dental hygienists were thought of as ‘that woman in the back room cleaning teeth.’ That makes my skin crawl because there is so much more to it than that,” Enstrom said. “They have as much knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and pathology as nurses do, but then they focus specifically deeper into the head and neck area. It’s a very intensive program.”

Many go on to open their own private practices, helped in large part by the broad training they receive at Confederation College.

Confederation College health programs:
– Critical Care Nursing Certificate
– Dental Assisting
– Dental Care and Administration
– Dental Hygiene
– Diabetes Education
– Foot Care Nurse
– Health Records Clerk
– Hospital Ward Clerk
– Leadership in Patient Support & Administration
– Medical Laboratory Assistant
– Medical Office Assistant
– Medical Radiation Technologist
– Medical Transcriptionist
– Palliative Care
– Paramedic
– Personal Support Worker
– Practical Nursing
– RPN Oncology
– Bachelor of Science in Nursing
– Working with Dementia

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