Talking with U of M

Talking dental hygiene with U of M

Image of dentist in blue mask and blue gloves examining a patient’s jaw.
Credit: Getty Images

Dental hygiene is one of the fastest growing professions in the United States today. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 9 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.” 

As the field expands, so does understanding of the critical role oral health plays in full body health, and the need for providers to work with others in the healthcare industry to provide complete, comprehensive care is only increasing.

As we near the end of National Dental Hygiene Month in October, Keeley Flavin, MSDH, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Dentistry, discusses the importance of dental hygiene and how the field is transforming in the modern era.

Q: What does a dental hygienist do?

Flavin: Dental hygienists are highly-educated and skilled care providers who play an integral role in helping patients achieve and maintain optimal oral health. I like to think of dental hygienists as prevention specialists. We are trained in managing patients' complex medical and dental needs, recognizing signs of disease, formulating individualized preventative treatment plans and educating our patients about their unique oral condition. Further, your dental hygienist can quite literally save your life. We are trained to perform a number screening assessments for life threatening conditions such as oral cancer, HPV, HIV and cardiovascular disease. 

Q: How does dental hygiene play into full body health?

Flavin: Within the last few years, it’s become increasingly evident that oral health is highly connected to our full body health. Associations have been found between the bacteria in our mouth and systemic diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, preterm birth, stroke, diabetes melitus, respiratory illnesses, Alzheimer's disease and more.  Research has shown that achieving and maintaining optimal oral health not only benefits the mouth, but can also positively impact the rest of the body. When dental hygienists see their patients for their routine check-ups, we screen for some of the early signs/symptoms of untreated diseases and help educate patients about this connection so they can be informed about their overall health. Additionally, if we find anything concerning in their health screenings, we’re able to connect patients with the appropriate care provider to meet their needs. 

Q: What role does interprofessional collaboration play in the field of dental hygiene?

Flavin: Because dental hygienists are well versed in the mouth/body connection, we often collaborate with healthcare providers outside of the dental clinic. This may include reaching out to patients’ medical doctors or surgeons to verify a safe course of treatment, pharmacists to manage patients with complex medication needs or nutritionists and dieticians to diagnose and manage nutritional needs. Most recently dental hygienists have been gaining recognition for their important role collaborating with medical teams in the hospital setting. It is known that oral health significantly declines during a hospital stay, which can lead to poor outcomes such as hospital acquired infections and poor quality of life. Having a provider in the hospital who specializes in oral health can help bridge the gap between medicine and dentistry.

Q: As the industry faces unprecedented growth, how is the field of dental hygiene changing and evolving?

Flavin: It’s exciting to see the new career opportunities for the next generation of dental hygienists. With emerging research on the mouth/body connection and the important role of dental hygienists, current students will find themselves in roles that don’t even exist yet! The dental hygiene profession as a whole is starting to think outside of the box in terms of how and where we provide our care. In addition to clinical practice, we now see dental hygienists traveling to long-term care facilities as a large amount of our patient base enter into the 65+ demographic, practicing on mobile dental units reaching low access communities, working in hospitals and healthcare homes and more! The profession of dental hygiene is evolving with the needs of the public.

Q: How is the work that you contribute to the future of dental hygiene practice?

Flavin: I really think that the University of Minnesota’s Dental Hygiene Program is on the front lines of the future of dental hygiene. Rather than just speaking about all of the exciting opportunities for our emerging dental hygienists, we are able to show students directly and demonstrate first hand where they can take their dental hygiene careers. One of these unique experiences is an interprofessional rotation in the M Health Fairview Medical Center.

Through a grant secured by our division director Dr. Cyndee Stull, I, along with my colleague Mercedes VanDeWiele are able to serve as the M Health Fairview Medical Center’s only hospital dental hygienists. I think it’s so important for students to see role models practicing in the environments that are available to them. It’s one thing for us to tell them about all of the exciting new opportunities out there, and it's an entirely different experience for them to see it in action. 

Keeley Flavin, MSDH, is a full-time clinical assistant professor in the Division of Dental Hygiene at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. She works to educate senior and junior dental hygiene students in didactic, clinical and interprofessional education. Additionally, she serves as a hospital dental hygienist at the MHealth Medical Center, and practices one day a week in a general dentist office. Her research interests include interprofessional identity, interprofessional education, medical-dental integration and non-traditional practice settings. Keeley received her BSDH, RF from the University of Minnesota in 2016, and her MSDH from the University of Minnesota in 2021. 



About “Talking...with U of M”

“Talking...with U of M” is a resource whereby University of Minnesota faculty answer questions on current and other topics of general interest. Feel free to republish this content. If you would like to schedule an interview with the faculty member or have topics you’d like the University of Minnesota to explore for future “Talking...with U of M,” please contact University Public Relations at [email protected].

About the School of Dentistry

The University of Minnesota School of Dentistry advances health through scientific discovery, innovative education and the highest-quality care for all communities. As the state's only dental school, the School of Dentistry educates the next generation of oral health professionals and is a resource to five states for dental education and consultation. Of Minnesota’s practicing dentists, 72 percent are graduates of the dental school. Through its clinics, the School of Dentistry also sees more than 156,000 patient visits each year.

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