Dianne Stojak, Dental Hygiene Program Community Health Coordinator and Instructor, has been with Vancouver Community College (VCC) since 1979 and with its Dental Hygiene Program since its inception in 1986. In the last 27 years the program has undergone curriculum renewal three times, the most recent within the last two years in which a new learning program was developed based on the Entry to Practice Competencies and Standards, a collaborative framework for dental hygiene practice developed by national professional and licensing organizations and educators. This framework emphasizes the importance of political activism, social responsibility, and advocacy in addition to clinical education.
As an educator, Dianne’s focus is on community health and organizing students in their community rotations. “At VCC we really encourage political activism, social responsibility, and advocacy through these community rotations. The goal is to bring real-world experiences to students so that they have an opportunity to take what they have learned with them as they go forward into their careers. We want our students to graduate with excellent clinical skills, the ability to advocate for their clients and the profession, and a strong sense of social service. ”
This broad community and social focus is a key distinguishing and innovative characteristic for the VCC program. At present, there are several areas in which students enter the community. The Children’s Oral Health Initiative (COHI) is a national program which brings dental professionals to remote, First Nations communities to provide oral care for the purposes of oral health promotion. Typically these are communities that are underserved by oral health providers. Students also work with the Dental Oncology Branch, part of the BC Cancer Agency, in providing care for people living with cancer. As Dianne notes, “The treatment at the Dental Oncology Branch of the BC Cancer Agency is not just from a tooth perspective, our students focus on the psycho-social needs of a client as well.”
VCC dental hygiene students also work at Strathcona Elementary School with inner city grade-four students and their families. Others work in an after school cooking club with the Musqueam First Nation. Dental hygiene education services are provided at an Eastside pre-school, and with ESL teenagers at Brittania High school. Clinical services are provided at the Queen’s Park Extended Care facility, at the two dental clinics in Haida Gwaii, and through two dental clinics: Strathcona Dental and R. E. A. C. H. Dental Clinics.
Additionally, students work with other health care providers, such as Licensed Practical Nursing students(LPNs) and Home Support Aides, in educational programs and hospital settings in order to provide education to other professionals so that they in turn can administer oral care for their own patients and clients. This year, Dianne also organized a meeting between LPN students and dental hygiene students to discuss their scopes of practice and professions. Both sets of students came out of this meeting with a new understanding of what the others do.
“As you can see the breadth and scope of where our students go and what they do is very large! This is our intent, to ensure that they touch on a variety of community elements so that their VCC education is both rich and diverse.”
Consistently students give high-marks to the VCC program. As one student said, “My eyes were opened to the limitations in the lack of access to oral care for many communities.” Another stated, “As a result of the program, I am now able to relate to and sympathize for others in my future practice who have experienced struggles in their life and community.” Also important to note that the current head of the BC COHI program is a graduate of the VCC Dental Hygiene Program, and that the Reach clinic, described above, hired a VCC graduate because they realized out of the rotation that they needed a dental hygienist on staff. Community leaders on Haida Gwaii have also come to realize that they too need to hire a dental hygienist.
It is clear that these community rotations have the ability to move dental hygienists forward in addressing oral health care issues. While work still needs to be done in bringing dental hygienists into the fold of health care providers, as Dianne points out the evidence base for oral health impacting overall wellness is continuing to grow. “I think we’re moving in the right direction in better integrating dental hygienists as members of the health care team. It’s slow but steady progress. As other health care providers discuss and respond to this evidence base linking oral health to systemic health it will become more and more obvious that oral health is of primary importance and must be considered. Part of what we’re trying to do with these rotations is not only to graduate good dental hygiene citizens, but also to raise the profile of the profession amongst a variety of groups. The more we as a profession can be out there, the more people will come to be aware of the role dental hygienists play in health care.”
The VCC Dental Hygiene Program and its instructors have committed themselves thoroughly to these community rotations because they see the value in them. Their pride and esteem for their students is evident when talking to them. Dianne sums this esteem up in this way: “It takes intention and extra devotion to make sure these programs go ahead. But it’s the students that do the work. I am amazed by the level of work they achieve and I am exhilarated to see their transformational, authentic, learning occur. I truly believe that our graduates will be the political activists of the future because they are so capable and confident having had not only excellent clinical training, but real-life community based experiences that can’t be captured theoretically. This makes them acutely aware of their community and the real-life issues people face in accessing oral care. It is truly my honour to have been able to be part of their learning and my pleasure to be part of the VCC team.”