Staying Ahead of the Class


Taking a look at all the latest trends and opportunities in dental hygiene education.

Staying Ahead of the Class. Image: © Framestock -

Staying Ahead of the Class. Image: © Framestock -

Today’s hygienists are empowered and inspired to be leaders both inside and outside their practices—and that’s being reflected in the type of educational opportunities they’re pursuing.

While both hygiene students and practicing hygienists are taking in the clinical courses they need to provide the best patient care possible, they’re also looking at business courses that teach them how to be coproviders with their dentists, and classes that show them how to prioritize the self-care they need to lengthen their careers.

Hygienists are also looking for opportunities outside of clinical practice, whether that be working with companies to help promote products they believe in, coaching other hygienists, or educating future practitioners. There are so many career paths for hygienists today that didn’t exist before, and investing in the right continuing education (CE) is helping to better prepare them for those opportunities.

Hygiene schools focus on providing the foundation students need to be successful, with CE giving students and practicing hygienists the opportunity to further advance their skills in areas that interest them. They can take that CE via various platforms, whether in person at conferences or retreats or through online courses from the comfort of their home. There’s no shortage of options, making it easy for hygienists to expand their skills and their knowledge base.

Hygienists are attending more meetings for networking and CE opportunities because they want to learn and grow professionally, says Tiffany Wuebben, RDH, founder and CEO of The Hygienepreneur, a hygiene consulting company. They want to be heard and are inspired to lead their departments, and when that happens, “everyone in the practice, including the patient, wins.”

“The industry is calling upon us to serve in a bigger way than just taking care of our patients’ oral health,” Wuebben says. “In the past, hygienists would show up to meetings just to get CE. Now they’re also showing up to be fed emotionally and to really lock [arms] with folks that have the same mindset, and that’s enhancing their careers.”

Where Hygienists Are Going for CE

Traditionally, hygienists and other oral health professionals took the bulk of their CE during the large annual dental conferences, Wuebben says. They would pack into large ballrooms to learn about the latest and greatest dental technologies and then incorporate what they learned when they returned to the office on Monday.

While hygienists still attend those meetings, the vibe is different, Wuebben says. Not only do they get to take in high-quality CE, but they also get to experience great entertainment. Attendees can attend social mixers, concerts, and other live events all geared toward helping them make connections, relax, and have a little fun while they learn. Meeting planners want to make events sizzle with extras that promote professional growth.

Hygienists are also taking more courses through smaller CE programs and networking events, and they are not just relying on the bigger conferences, says Caitlin Parsons, a yoga therapist and ergonomic specialist with The Aligned Hygienist.

Retreat-style learning is an example. Smaller groups are invited to destinations to satisfy their CE needs, Wuebben says, and to really bond with other attendees. Classes are taught in a nurturing environment, giving hygienists a chance to recharge as well, whether near a big city, out in the country, in a tropical location, or on a cruise ship.

Also becoming more popular these days is modular learning, which is more of a master class approach to CE, says Catapult Education Vice President of Operations Shawnie Cahuya, RDH.

“People love to have an expertise on 1 topic,” she says. “You can be looked at as an expert in a specific niche, such as anesthesia, after you’ve completed a master class, and you can use that to market yourself to potential employers.”

Then, of course, there’s online learning. While you miss out on the networking element, you have the convenience of taking a live course from home or watching the lesson on demand whenever it’s most convenient for you. It’s an easy way for hygienists to fit CE into their busy lives and is certainly here to stay, says Susan Boyden, RDH, MBA, senior manager, education, for HuFriedyGroup.

Blended learning also has become popular, Cahuya says, with many hygienists opting to take a few prerequisite courses online and then following them up with an in-person class.

Podcasts offer a way for hygienists to learn on the go, Wuebben says, and have exploded in recent years. At about 30 minutes, they’re a great way for hygienists to pass the time during their commute to and from work, for example.

There are plenty of ways for hygienists to consume information to help them grow professionally and serve their patients better. As they look to take on more leadership roles, many are taking in as much education as they can.

Emerging CE Topics

Hygienists are gravitating toward CE that goes beyond how to clean teeth and provide a happy patient experience, Parsons says. They want to take courses that can really help them improve their patients’ lives. Hot topics include the oral-systemic link, oral cancer and blood pressure screening, and sleep apnea/sleep medicine.

They’re also looking for more personal wellness tools, she says, making therapeutic yoga and classes that delve into improving ergonomics popular options. And courses that tackle mental and physical well-being shouldn’t be just one-offs; it’s important for hygienists to keep coming back to them throughout their career.

Total body wellness is of huge interest right now, Stellar Outcomes President Brandi Hooker Evans, RDH-ER, MHE, MAADH, says, with hygienists taking courses on everything from medicinal therapy to stress management to the endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for homeostasis in the body.

Hygienists are always up for learning new methods to improve self-care and to find engaging ways to talk to patients about maintaining their oral health that go beyond telling them to brush and floss.

“Everyone is exhausted [by] the old topics and hearing them over and over,” Hooker Evans says. “To put some passion and excitement and light back into our dental careers, we have to give our brains something new to work on, and topics that go beyond traditional dentistry do that. If we can take a different approach to the way we talk to our patients or learn about something new that reignites our passion, that enables us to show up for our patients in a new and profound way.”

As hygienists aim to become leaders, there’s more interest in learning how to collaborate with their dentist and to truly understand the business side of dentistry.

Courses that cover practice building are also hot right now, Wuebben says, especially for practices that are struggling. Staffing shortages, high supply and lab costs, and insurance issues are among the business-related areas affecting practices today, and any courses addressing such topics are high on the list for hygienists.

“Dentistry is a business,” Cahuya says. “When you get out of school you are well-versed in scaling teeth, but they really don’t teach you the business side of your future career. It’s important for hygienists to understand how to position themselves as coproviders and as business partners as they are the second leading practitioner in the office.”

Hygienists are thinking out of the box when it comes to where they get their education, with some going to small business administrations to take courses, for example, says Cellerant Consulting Group Chief Hygiene Officer Melissa Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA. They’re also searching for courses that can help guide them on how to work outside of clinical practice, say in a health care facility or at patients’ homes, which is a little bit more difficult to find. Teledentistry is also big these days, helping hygienists reach more patients and opening up more opportunities for their careers.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another emerging area that hygienists need to keep abreast of, Turner says.

“It’s not here yet, but it’s going to be soon,” she says. “A lot of AI companies are focused on pitching the dentist, but the reality is it’s going to change what hygienists do during an appointment, and that will be huge.”

Courses that focus on mental health are gaining popularity as well, as they can teach hygienists how to identify patients who may have experienced trauma, Cahuya says. There are now classes that teach hygienists how to identify signs that someone is a victim of human trafficking, for example.

On the clinical side, there’s also more of an interest in air quality, aerosol control, and infection prevention post COVID-19 pandemic, says Karen A. Raposa, RDH, MBA, HuFriedyGroup Regional Manager, Academic Sales – East.

“Patients are more keenly aware of the risk of disease transmission during their dental visit,” Boyden says. “The dental team must be vigilant in their compliance to these concerns for their patients’ well-being and their own. Instrument reprocessing, surface disinfection, aerosol mitigation, personal protective equipment are all popular topics right now.”

Courses on advanced technologies for biofilm management, such as air/powder and piezo scaling, and how they tie into advanced hand scaling with various hand instrumentation are also of interest, says Julie Morrill, RDH, MS, HuFriedyGroup Regional Manager, Academic Sales - West, as is dental unit waterline treatment and testing.

“For years, everyone just assumed the water coming from dental units met basic safety standards,” Boyden says. “But with recent [infection prevention] breaches being traced back to contaminated [dental unit waterlines], we now know that is not the case. It is an area of concern for hygienists and the entire dental team.”

Beyond the CE courses hygienists must take, they really should focus on areas that “feel fun to them,” Hooker Evans says. You won’t get much out of sitting in on a Zoom course just to earn credit if you don’t have an interest in the topic. It’s important to find something that interests you and then use what you’ve learned to improve yourself and your practice. Doing so will help keep you passionate about dentistry and avoid burnout.

It comes down to finding CE that will lead to personal growth, Wuebben says.

“Any way we can invest in ourselves with extra training and education is so important,” she says. “And when we do this, all areas of our lives become better. Life outside of hygiene should be nurtured. Life balance is so important for physical and mental health as well as career longevity.”

Setting the Foundation in Hygiene School

One of the biggest education trends in hygiene schools is the move away from live patient licensing exams to manikin/objective clinical 3D virtual style exams, Raposa says, leading educators to adjust their curriculum to ensure student success on the new exam structure.

The move to manikin licensing exams came during the COVID-19 pandemic when students were ready to graduate and obtain their licenses, says South College Program Director Tammy Fisher, BSDH, MS.

Before the pandemic, every state required a licensing exam that required every dental hygienist to test with a live patient. The new standardized manikin exam is accepted by most states, a huge change that also gives students a level playing field. Every applicant now completes the same work, Fisher says. With the old exam, it was difficult to find patients who fit the criteria, and if the patients were rejected on exam day, it could mean having to wait months to take the exam again. That isn’t an issue with today’s manikin exams, alleviating that stressor.

COVID-19 didn’t just change the licensing exams; it’s still having an impact on today’s hygiene students who were juniors or seniors in high school during the shutdowns, Fisher says. In addition to the year of lost learning, they also lost socialization and the chance to develop people and life skills—and coming out of that has been a challenge. Many institutions, such as South College, offer mental health resources at no charge to help students through struggles they may experience.

Hygiene schools spent a lot of time putting out fires instead of focusing on care plans during the pandemic, and that had an effect on the students’ learning experience and in some cases their skill sets, Hooker Evans says, creating mentorship opportunities for more experienced hygienists. But that’s behind us, and schools can now spend more time focusing on fundamentals and the emerging topics that hygienists need to have a handle on before graduating.

One of the areas Hooker Evans would like to see schools focus on more is the research that shows the effectiveness of ultrasonic scalers over hand instruments, and how much less structure they remove.

Schools often teach a blended approach to scaling, she says, where hygienists use both ultrasonics and hand instruments for every patient. While it’s crucial for hygienists to excel at using hand instruments, they also should have the skill to use ultrasonic scalers and move away from using the blended approach on every patient.

Business and practice management also should be more of a focus, Turner says, as should innovation. Big-picture courses that cover what’s coming down the pike would help hygienists prepare for the new tools and technologies that can and will change how they practice.

It’s also critical for schools to prepare hygienists for the real world, Cahuya says.

“Looking back, it would have been extremely valuable [for me] to learn what critical factors to look for in an office,” Cahuya says. “For example, what instruments and technology would be available to me, what is the process for ordering supplies, and understanding the potential for my financial growth.”

N95 mask requirements for aerosol-producing procedures, American Society for Testing and Materials level ratings for surgical masks, and Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation level ratings for surgical gown barriers are other areas schools should focus more on, Morrill says. There’s also a need to reinforce the purpose of Gracey scalers vs power and universal curettes as well as more widespread education on piezo scaling technology vs magnetostrictive.

South College has put a focus on new and emerging technology in its clinic and exposing hygienists to as many instruments as possible. For example, every unit has air polishers as well as piezo and ultrasonic scalers so students can learn both methods. The goal is to stay on top of the latest technology so hygienists are prepared to use them when they start practicing.

Educators also encourage students to attend in-person events and to take online courses that can enhance their learning, Wuebben says, giving them more career paths to potentially follow.

Opening Doors

It used to be when hygienists graduated from school, they went to private practice and then pretty much hit a ceiling in their career, unless they wanted to be a hygiene educator or go into sales, Turner says.

Today, hygienists are becoming entrepreneurs, Fisher says, with many creating their own coaching and consulting businesses. They’re also pursuing careers in public health and government auditing, becoming managers and trainers who guide other hygienists, and taking on advisory roles for dental companies.

Some of the opportunities created have to do with the introduction of dental service organizations, Turner says, and startups that see hygiene as the future of dentistry.

Investing time and money in the right CE courses puts hygienists in the position to take advantage of these many opportunities, Hooker Evans says, and to give their “highest contribution” to their profession.

“When you take advanced courses on one topic or another, it gives you the opportunity to say you want to learn more or you want to be certified in this area to help promote and teach this topic,” she says. “It keeps you connected to and networking with companies that might be a perfect fit for you to work with to promote either equipment, services, or philosophies that can impact the workforce on a greater level.”

Investing in education also gives hygienists the opportunity to have a positive impact on their practices, Turner says, improving efficiencies and helping dentists shift from a fix-it model to more of a prevention-focused model.

Learning advanced technologies like AI and 3D scanning and how they can benefit the practice financially helps position hygienists as coproviders, Cahuya says, and gives them the opportunity to train other hygienists on how to use them as well.

Wellness courses teach hygienists how to better care for themselves and avoid burnout, Parsons says, and to save patients’ lives by learning how to properly take their blood pressure and screen them for oral cancer. That creates a deeper connection between the provider and the patient and leads to a more rewarding career for the hygienist.

And learning how to use instruments properly can lead to reduced hand fatigue and back pain and shorter prophylaxis appointments, Raposa says, resulting in longer careers.

“Advancing one’s own knowledge through CE courses always presents opportunities for hygienists,” Boyden says. “Improving patient outcomes, providing a safer dental treatment environment, [and] working more ergonomically to extend careers are all positive outcomes that can come with a deeper understanding of various dental topics.”

Finding the Best CE

There are a lot of great educational options available, says Wuebben, who recommends a mix of live in-person events, on-demand webinars, and podcasts. Taking advantage of the different platforms helps keep learning interesting and fun.

When selecting CE, think about which courses you’d prefer to take online vs in person, talk with colleagues about their experiences, and do some research to see what fits best with your interests and your schedule. There are plenty of options no matter the topic, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find the right fit.

“A lot of hygienists get into the habit of taking CE to check off boxes for their license,” Parsons says, “but it’s important to take courses that interest them and that add value for the practitioner, the practice, and the patient.”

It’s also important to look for courses with top-notch speakers who aren’t “just delivering fluff,” Cahuya says. And remember the industry and technology are changing rapidly, so make sure the programs you sign up for offer the most recent, relevant information.

“When choosing continuing education courses, consider the source,” Boyden says. “What group or organization is sponsoring the educational activity? The credentials of the speaker and any commercial bias in the content should be acknowledged. There are many sources for CE, and more influencers today than ever before. Hygienists should do their homework and rely on their own clinical and scientific background on a topic presented to get the most out of any CE program.”

The Opportunities Are Endless

Educating yourself throughout your career is key to professional growth and longevity. You’ll learn skills that will help you practice more efficiently and more comfortably, for example, or build a foundation of knowledge that will help you pursue career opportunities beyond the clinical setting, whether that’s becoming an educator, a trainer, a manager, or a consultant. There are so many opportunities—you just have to narrow down what you’d like to focus on and then go for it.

“It’s not just getting that dental learning to provide great care and help support our practices. It’s also getting fed personally,” Wuebben says. “You always have to have that fun factor when learning so you feel good afterward. And now more than ever we have all of these opportunities in front of us. Attend courses you know you’ll enjoy. There are so many ways to learn—it’s just choosing what we want and when we want it and having a great time.”

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