EDUCATION. After many years of discussion and several studies, beginning in the autumn the Dental Hygienist Program will officially become a three year program of university studies. “Finally!” say both Annica Almståhl and Kajsa H. Abrahamsson at the Institute of Odontology, Sahlgrenska Academy, even though in reality it has been a three-year program for the last 20 years.
Since the 1990s the professional role of dental hygienists has become increasingly complex, and their responsibility in dental care has increased. As the profession developed, a national discussion ensued on of how extensive the training should be and what knowledge requirements future dental hygienists should meet. When the Swedish government offered universities an opportunity in 1999 to become a pilot for an extended dental hygienist program lasting three years instead of two, the University of Gothenburg acted.
“We purchased a bottle of champagne at the time, deciding that we would save it and not open it until the three-year program became a reality. But this took a long time. When the government finally definitely decided a couple of years ago on a three-year program, we thought we had waited long enough and drank it,” says Abrahamsson, smiling at the memory.
A complete program
Several of the other universities that also decided to offer a three-year program on a trial basis continued to offer two years of undergraduate studies for the dental hygienist degree, but with a year added on leading to a bachelor’s degree. Gothenburg committed instead to an integrated, three-year program, with the opportunity for students to customize a shorter program if they wanted to graduate with a dental hygienist degree after two years of study. In Gothenburg most students chose to take the full three-year program that was offered, but in every class year a few students concluded their studies after two years.
Since the qualitative targets have been made more stringent on several points, all the universities that want to train dental hygienists have had to apply for new degree-awarding powers. Five out of six universities, including the University of Gothenburg, have been granted these powers and can admit new students in the autumn as planned.
From awareness to knowledge
“We worked intensely last year because we didn’t have many months to complete the application for the new degree-awarding powers,” says Annica Almståhl, who coordinates the Dental Hygienist Program at the University of Gothenburg.
She notes that the qualitative targets have now been enhanced and made more stringent. In several cases the targets have been changed from “awareness of” to “knowledge about” or from “insight into” to “ability to,” which also places new demands on the examinations.
“An earlier qualitative target was that dental hygienists should be able to diagnose caries and periodontal disease, but now they are to be able to independently perform oral examinations. This also includes seeing signs of other problems and diseases of the oral cavity, recognizing your own limitations and knowing when it is time to consult a dentist, a medical doctor or other professional.”
The three-year program also covers new areas that the former one did not include. Among other things, students now learn to recognize the signs of domestic violence and how they should then respond in their role as dental hygienists.
“This is an area that the government has generally focused on to a greater extent, and there is a lot of good material and online training that the National Board of Health and Welfare makes available, which teachers like us have already become familiar with,” says Almståhl.
Specialization and research
Until now it has been complicated for dental hygienists to specialize and complete a doctorate. The fact that undergraduate studies now will formally become a three-year program provides better conditions for courses at the master’s level and opportunities for doctoral studies.
“There is a great shortage of dental hygienists today, and being able to offer continuing professional development and specialization is a good way for employers to become more attractive. In the future I hope those of us within the university will be able to offer more continuing professional development at the master’s level,” says Abrahamsson, who also believes that the new dental hygienist program eventually will lead more students beginning a doctorate.
The team of teachers in Gothenburg includes several dental hygienists who have received their doctorates, two of whom are associate professors. They are working together now to prepare for the start of the program this autumn.
“Next week the teaching staff is gathering to discuss how the group can best implement the new program syllabus in preparation for autumn. Everyone needs to be involved in the process,” Almståhl and Abrahamsson say.
TEXT AND PHOTO: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN