How Dental Hygienists Help Improve Oral Health in Rural Communities

May 27, 2020

Improve oral health

In 2017, Wisconsin lawmakers changed state regulations allowing dental hygienists the right to work in more places without direct supervision by a licensed dentist. The changes gave dental hygienists the chance to offer services in areas where people have inadequate access to dental care.

The state legislature’s passage of Act 20 led to improved oral healthcare in Wisconsin’s rural communities, nursing homes, adult day care facilities, and community centers, among other places. It also opens the door for those who want to complete their bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and make a positive impact on health outcomes.

To support that goal, Marian University developed the state’s first online Bachelor of Science Dental Hygiene Completion Program. The university designed the program for those who have earned an associate degree in dental hygiene from an accredited school.

Students in the 100% online dental hygiene completion program can earn their four-year degree in about 16 months. Earning a bachelor’s degree provides dental hygienists better job opportunities, particularly with the passage of Act 20.

The Situation for Dental Hygienists in Wisconsin

When passing Act 20, Wisconsin lawmakers gave dental hygienists the means to improve oral health in rural communities and other areas that are often underserved. Other medical professionals have welcomed the change.

Emilia Arana, a pediatrician with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee, told the Journal Sentinel that allowing dental hygienists to work without supervision enables them to provide more services to those with diabetes and pregnant women. “We’ve been waiting for this for many years,” Arana said.  “This is huge for us. It is going to benefit many patients.”

Act 20 allows dental hygienists to perform preventive care such as dental prophylaxis (cleaning), fluoride varnishes, and sealants. They can also educate patients on good oral health practices. Dental hygienists can work in community clinics, nonprofit home health care agencies, nonprofit dental care programs, nursing homes, outpatient medical services facilities, adult daycare centers, community rehabilitation programs, and prisons.

That’s an important change because only one in four low-income workers covered by Medicaid seek dental treatment in Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel reports. That leads to poorer health outcomes, as good dental hygiene is associated with good overall health.

The demand for dental hygienists in Wisconsin remains high. According to federal projections, Wisconsin will see a 10% increase in the number of dental hygienists by 2026. The average salary for dental hygienists in Wisconsin reached $67,810 in May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The top 25% in the profession made $75,950.

How Marian University Prepares Dental Hygienists

Marian University created Wisconsin’s first dental hygiene bachelor’s completion program to support ambitious dental hygienists who want to take their careers to the next level. The program is available for both Wisconsin dental hygienists and those from out of state.

Marian University offers the program completely online, letting students schedule classwork around busy professional and personal schedules. The university’s MPath 7-Week Accelerated online learning platform provides easy communication channels between students and professors, as well as access to coursework materials and resources. Students typically take one or two courses every seven weeks, so it is possible to complete a bachelor’s degree and continue working.

Incoming students can transfer up to 90 credits. Most graduate in about 16 months.

Earning a BS in Dental Hygiene prepares graduates for careers in clinical instruction, public health, and management. Some also use the degree as the next step toward earning a master’s degree. There is no clinical component to the program, as that is required at the associate degree level.

Students in the online bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene completion program take courses in community practice, health equity in diverse populations, leadership, and managing healthcare teams. The program focuses on expanding dental hygiene beyond private practice.