A Change in the Role of the Dental Hygienist
“For years, patients had to see a dentist before they could see a hygienist, as a dentist had to refer them for hygiene treatment"
The importance of oral hygiene is, these days, generally understood and appreciated. Looking after our teeth and gums by cleaning and flossing regularly can help keep our mouths clean and our breath fresh and can prevent the development of conditions requiring treatment by our dentist, particularly when combined with regular visits to a dental hygienist. With a general change in emphasis over the recent years towards prevention, the role of the dental hygienist has changed and grown significantly both in scope and importance.
Diane Stevens qualified as a dental hygienist in 1990 at RAF Holton, where she initially trained as a civilian alongside the service personal. In the 25 years since qualifying she has predominantly worked in North Oxford and, over the years, has developed an excellent reputation among her patients for offering a friendly, high quality service that is comfortable, thorough and efficient.
Diane told us how dental hygiene and the role of the hygienist has changed recently in line with the general trend in dentistry towards prevention. “For years, patients had to see a dentist before they could see a hygienist, as a dentist had to refer them for hygiene treatment.
But in 2013 the General Dental Council (GDC) changed its regulations and removed this barrier to direct access to dental hygienists, and since then patients have been able to see a hygienist without having to see a dentist first.
This was seen as an indication of the importance of the hygienist’s role within the dental care team and the recognition of the need for preventive oral care. It also means that where patients are registered with a dental practice which did not have its own hygienist, they can see one elsewhere. So it’s much easier for patients to get the hygiene treatment they need or want.”
The role of a dental hygienist differs greatly from that of the dentist. Dentists focus on restorative and aesthetic procedures to fix tooth damage or improve conditions, while a dental hygienist is primarily concerned with the prevention of problems. Ultimately, this means that a dentist can focus on patients who need his or her particular skills, while hygienists are specially qualified to give advice on oral health and carry out treatments to improve and maintain it.
“There is an important advisory element to the work of a hygienist,” comments Diane. “We can spend time with patients in a relaxed environment and show them how to carry out effective oral hygiene. In addition, when needed, we can provide diet and lifestyle advice which supports oral health, and we can answer any questions and concerns that patients may have. It’s all about working together with patients to help them take good care of their own teeth and gums and hopefully minimise the need for any dental procedures or, when treatments are necessary, optimise their chances of a successful outcome.”
A hygienist’s main aim is to prevent and treat gum disease, as well as ‘scaling’ and ‘polishing’.
Polishing removes staining and ‘plaque’, a colourless film of live bacteria which forms a sticky residue on the teeth, while scaling removes ‘tartar’, a hard buildup of those same bacteria which have become mineralised over time which is most commonly seen as a yellow or brown staining on the teeth. These two deposits can be major contributors to gum disease and no matter how well we all clean and floss our teeth, there is inevitably some of this buildup which needs to be professionally cleaned from time to time.
Hygienists can also apply topical fluoride and fluoride varnishes under prescription from a general dental practitioner to help prevent tooth decay. They can also place fissure sealants, a plastic coating for the biting surfaces to prevent the entry of bacteria combined with sugar which causes decay, and can take X-rays to detect problems, referring patients to a dentist if further treatment is needed.
Having been a dental hygienist for nearly 25 years, Diane clearly enjoys her work and takes pride in what she does. “I really love my job – I’ve treated some of my patients for years and I have really enjoyed getting to know them. It’s so rewarding to see improvements in the condition of their teeth and gums as they begin to experience the results of our work together and it’s great when we all have something to smile about!”
Diane Stevens offers direct access to dental hygiene services at James Green, 69-71 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 6JE
Visits to hygienists are not substitutes for full dental examinations.
Referral to your dentist will be given if the condition of your mouth gives concern.
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