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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Dental Hygiene Program Is State of the Art and Service-Learning Focused

When was the last time you visited a dental hygienist?

If the answer to that question has you scratching your head, Old Dominion University 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.

The ODU clinic logs about 6,000 patient visits each year. Students in the School of Dental Hygiene also visit schools, public health centers and senior citizen homes as part of the community engagement and service-learning portion of the degree program.

The services provided at the clinic 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.

On the ODU campus, students in the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene graduate with a baccalaureate or master's degree, providing them with a strong foundation to be successful in all the profession's associated roles. Dr. Gene W. Hirschfeld founded the program in 1966 and under his leadership it quickly became one of the premier dental hygiene programs in the country.

Currently, nearly 90 students attend undergraduate classes at the school; another 25 are in the master's program; and 40 more two-year degree holders are participating in a degree completion program.

Tolle said student enrollment in the M.S. program doubled when the master's program transferred to an online approach four years ago.

The 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.

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