Looking to the Future, by Nora Tong

NoraTongNora Tong is a 4th year student in the University of British Columbia’s dental hygiene degree program, and is also the president of the graduating class of 2014. As part of a speech she gave at the BCDHA 50th Anniversary celebration, she shares below her class’ perspective on what they envision for the future as they enter the professional aspect of their lives.  Thank you Nora for sharing your insights and perspectives!

Our class is comprised of 17 female students. While the majority of our class is from the Lower Mainland, we also have students in our class from Kamloops, Abbotsford, 100-mile house, Alberta and Ontario.

Unanimously, our class agreed that we chose to study dental hygiene because of our passion to be involved in health care and make a difference in people’s lives. Many of us were influenced by positive experiences when visiting our dental hygienist. These role models answered our many questions, shared their experiences with us, and encouraged us to consider becoming oral health professionals.

Some of us were inspired to make a difference for others after experiencing first-hand significant personal barriers to achieving oral health. Throughout the past four years of our educational program, it has been amazing to learn about how much the dental hygiene profession has advanced and matured over the last fifty years. It’s also very exciting to realize that we will soon be joining the ranks of such a strong and vibrant profession, one that has made progress in addressing access to oral health care barriers faced by many segments of our population.

At UBC we have had the unique experience of operating community-based clinical dental hygiene programs for a wide variety of under-served populations. Through these rich experiences, we have gained a better understanding of the diverse needs of these segments of our population and developed additional skills and increased confidence in working with people in settings outside of mainstream clinical practice.

A number of us are interested in pursuing further education after we graduate, for example, in public health. An exciting opportunity is the new dual degree program that will begin this fall at UBC. It includes a Masters in Public Health and a diploma in dental public health.  After graduation, many of us are planning to start our careers by gaining clinical practice experience in private practice and working towards attaining a full registration with the 365-day Rule exempt category. Some of us are hoping to work in collaboration with other dental professionals to deliver care to at-risk populations.

I personally plan to work in a small town such as Prince George and perhaps set up a dental hygiene program in the hospital or hospice. Some of my colleagues are looking at creating a phone app for the public to be able to choose between various oral products. As you know, people are often confused by the many choices on store shelves and find it very challenging to know which product is best for them. Looking further into the future, some classmates are very interested in setting up a mobile dental hygiene clinic for the homeless population. Other plans include: creating an oral health program for pregnant teens, incorporating an oral health educational program in the B.C. elementary school curriculum, travelling overseas to educate individuals in third world countries, and finally, conducting dental hygiene research.

Dental hygiene is growing as a profession and along with the many opportunities there are certainly challenges ahead. Access to oral healthcare has been and will remain a significant barrier unless change is advocated for. The 365-day rule limits the ability for dental hygienists to reach out and break these barriers in accessing care. Even after qualifying for the full registration “365-day rule exempt” category, dental hygienists still will face the struggle with the inability to provide local anesthetic if there is not a dentist on site. Dental hygiene as a profession is not widely known to the public and some people will only seek restorative treatment when they feel there is a problem. We face the challenge of promoting the profession by increasing the public’s knowledge and awareness about what we do, as well as the importance of prevention.

However, these challenges are not a reason for us to be discouraged. There are new pathways for the 365-day rule exemption registration and the public is becoming more aware of the importance of oral health. We have advanced dental hygiene education programs available with an increasing focus on policy use and research. Mobile equipment options are increasingly becoming viable options and there are a growing number of insurance companies who are accepting direct claims from independent dental hygienists.

Current statistics from the World Health Organization report that 60-90% of school children and nearly 100% of adults have caries. Periodontal disease is prevalent in 15-20% of middle-aged adults between the ages of 35 and 44. We as dental hygienists have the potential to change the overall and oral health of at-risk populations. As primary care providers and potentially the first point of contact with the health care system for some individuals, we really have the opportunity to look at an individual in all aspects of their life. I think it’s equally important to recognize that oral hygiene may not be a priority but that we can still help them in other aspects of their health.

What excites us most is the not yet charted future opportunities of the dental hygiene profession. As new dental hygiene graduates, we are joining a profession that is quickly advancing and growing. The growth of our profession lies in the hands of those who are focused on the “outside of ordinary”, and who desire change. There are so many opportunities out there including independent practice, public health, long-term care, hospital-based oral health care programming, education, armed forces, research, sales/dental industry opportunities. To name only a few!

The UBC dental hygiene program graduating class of 2014 would like to issue a challenge to each and every one of you here today. We know we can all make a difference to the oral health and overall health of BC residents by taking on the role of being “change agents”.  I encourage you all to volunteer, share your views with your professional association, and mentor colleagues. Take a “newbie” “under your wing” and serve as a mentor either directly with a new grad in your practice, or even indirectly, by being available for phone and face-to-face meetings to share your expertise with us.

As new dental hygienists, my colleagues and I are excited to have a role in shaping the future of the dental hygiene profession, but we cannot do it without you and would love to have you share your expertise and passion with us. In essence, we all need to do what we can to advance this great profession so that we can all look forward to a better and brighter future.  As I enter this next phase of my professional life, I am pleased to stand behind all of the dental hygienists who have blazed the trail ahead of me.