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ODU Dental Hygiene Program Celebrates Profession’s 100th Anniversary

By Jon Cawley

When was the last time you visited a dental hygienist?

If the answer to that question has you scratching your head, Old Dominion has a convenient solution.

The Sofia and David Konikoff Dental Hygiene Care Facility, located in ODU's Health Sciences Building on 46th Street at the intersection of Hampton Boulevard, offers comprehensive dental hygiene services from late August to June. ODU students, faculty and staff are welcome, along with members of the local community.

And, with this year marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of the nation's first formal school for training dental hygienists, there is no better time to get acquainted with the students and faculty from the Gene W. Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene who staff the clinic.

In 1913, the first formal school for "dental hygienists" opened in Bridgeport, Conn., with a strong emphasis on the concept of preventive care. Dr. Alfred Fones, the first dental hygiene educator, envisioned dental hygienists as outreach workers, treating people outside of the private dental office. In fact, in the early years, the dental hygienist was employed predominantly in public health settings and in school-based programs. Over time the profession gradually shifted to the private-practice sector.

Today the roles of the dental hygienist have expanded to those of clinician, educator, advocate, administrator and researcher. On the ODU campus, students in the Gene W. Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene graduate with a baccalaureate or master's degree, providing them with a strong foundation to be successful in all these roles. Hirschfeld founded the program in 1966 and under his leadership it quickly became one of the premier dental hygiene programs in the United States.

Sharon Stull, lecturer of dental hygiene, recently hosted an event at her home to celebrate the profession's 100th birthday. The guest list included students, faculty and local practitioners.

Currently, nearly 90 students attend undergraduate classes at the Hirschfeld School; another 25 are in the master's program; and 40 more two-year degree holders are participating in a degree completion program. Enrollment in the M.S. program doubled when the master's program transferred to an online approach four years ago.

All are welcome to receive oral health care services at ODU's facility, says Stull, who is a strong advocate for providing access to care to underserved communities. When the 2000 report Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General was released, citing inadequate access to care as the No. 1 barrier to oral health care, the profession, in an attempt to meet the needs of the underserved, has committed to returning to its origins by providing access to oral health care in all communities.

"ODU students, as part of their community-based service-learning projects, have impacted over 6,000 individuals in our community, with donated services totaling $88,000," said Stull.

"One hundred years later, as we celebrate National Dental Hygiene Month in October, that concept and the preventive care services of the modern-day dental hygienist have proven to be the most cost-effective means to improve the oral health of the country. Our goal is to provide access to care for all and to eradicate oral diseases through education and preventive services."

In addition to seeing patients at the clinic, ODU students visit schools, public health centers and senior citizen homes as part of the community engagement and service-learning portion of their degree program.

The services the clinic provides not only help maintain good oral hygiene, but also identify potentially dangerous threats to general health.

"The mouth is the portal of entry, and site of disease, for microbial infections that affect general health," said Lynn Tolle, ODU University Professor of dental hygiene and director of clinical affairs. "Oral disease places a burden on our society in the form of lost days and years of productivity. A clean mouth is the first line of defense in a healthy body."

Tolle cited increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, respiratory disease and pre-term low birth weight delivery as conditions that can be linked to periodontal disease. In the century since the profession emerged, the roles of the dental hygienist have expanded to that of clinician, educator, advocate, administrator and researcher.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the dental hygiene field is experiencing job growth that is "much faster than the average for all occupations." As noted in the bureau's Occupational Outlook Handbook, about 68,500 dental hygienists are expected to be added to the U.S. workforce between 2010 and 2020 - a 38 percent increase.

"Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to spur the demand for preventative dental services, which are often provided by dental hygienists," the bureau's analysis states.

The ODU school has significantly evolved in recent years to strengthen its academic programming and increase career opportunities for students. Key among the developments was introduction of certification courses for dental hygienists to be able to administer local anesthesia and nitrous oxide-oxygen sedation; a move from film-based to digital radiology; and a transfer from paper to electronic health records.

"We pride ourselves in being state-of-the-art to help our students perform better in the real world," Tolle said.

For more information about degree programs or the clinic, visit the School of Dental Hygiene website.

feature2-lg01ODU’s School of Dental Hygiene recently celebrated the profession’s milestone at the home of faculty member Sharon Stull. The guest list included students, faculty and practitioners.

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