The Dalhousie University School of Dental Hygiene will offer its Bachelor of Dental Hygiene (BDH) program on a part-time basis, making it easier for dental hygienists to advance their education while continuing to work, according to the university.
“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,” said Dr. Leigha Rock, director of the School of Dental Hygiene. “This new part-time option will enable them to continue to practice and work towards their degree over two years.”
The Faculty of Dentistry has offered a two-year diploma in dental hygiene program for more than 50 years. In 2009, the program expanded to a four-year degree to enable students to advance their knowledge in dental hygiene, pursue alternate areas of practice such as public health, and enroll in master’s level programs, according to the school.
The BDH program also has historically provided students with an opportunity to instruct first-year dental hygiene students, undertake a research project, and participate in outreach activities with 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, said Rock.
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, according to the school.
In the first year, a new pediatric experience was added, which included didactic instruction and observation sessions at the IWK hospital. At this location, students were able to observe pediatric oral surgeries and help provide preventive oral care and education to pediatric patients.
The grad periodontal clinic rotation has proved a resounding success as well, the school said.
“Students love it,” said 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 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 course, Community Practice and Health Promotion, also has been added to the BDH program. It builds on the longstanding community collaborations that the Faculty of Dentistry has with the North End Community Health Centre and the North Preston Dental Clinic, the school said, as well as a more recent collaboration with Phoenix Youth. The students also have participated in an internship with Nova Scotia Public Health, during which they helped to deliver fluoride rinse programs in schools.
The 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, the school said.
This process, Doucette said, 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,” Doucette said.
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,” said Doucette.
Courses in teaching methodology and research methodology complete the course lineup for the degree program. Rock said 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 these course requirements.
“It removes another barrier to further studies for those students,” said Rock.
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 BHD 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,” said Rock.
“Dental hygiene is a profession with a high injury rate,” said 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,” said 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.”