Thu | Apr 25, 2019

Dental hygienists locked out of public-health jobs

Published:Sunday | March 24, 2019 | 12:25 AMNadine Wilson-Harris - Staff Reporter

Years after graduating from university, some dental hygienists have failed to secure jobs in their field because they are shut out of the public-health sector.

The refusal to employ dental hygienists in the public sector is disheartening, said Stacianne Tennant, president of the Dental Hygienists’ Association of Jamaica (DHAJ), who listed that as a major challenge facing the membership.

“We are not employed to the public sector at all; we are not employed into the clinics or in the hospitals. We are mostly relying on private dentists to employ us, and some private dentists within themselves, they don’t think that they need to have hygienists on their team,” she said.

“A lot of students, they finish school and there is nothing put in place for us, but if the Government actually looks at the scale in the hierarchy, dental hygienists are very much needed in the public sector,” said Tennant, who noted that there are about 250 dental hygienists in Jamaica.

Both the University of Technology and the Northern Caribbean University are currently offering a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. This move was in response to the need to meet the demand for oral healthcare professionals locally. Jamaica has a dentist-to-patient ratio of about 6 per 100,000. The dentist-to-patient ratio in the US is 61/100,000 and 50-80/100,000.

Chief Dental Officer at the Ministry of Health Dr Irving McKenzie noted that there was a policy shift 17 years ago to train auxiliary professionals to assist dentists. These professionals included dental hygienists and dental nurses. Dental hygienists are tasked with cleaning the teeth of patients and carrying out other functions to prevent oral health problems.

“About 2002, there was a sort of a policy shift to train all categories of dental personnel for the public and private sector, and this included the training of dental hygienists. However, we have not had dental hygienists yet employed in the public service, but we are working at seeing how best we can engage dental hygienists because they are a group of professionals that are needed because they help towards improving the healthcare of the people that we serve,” he said.

He said that they are currently working on a policy position paper that would allow them to absorb these individuals in the public healthcare system, although the South East Regional Health Authority has already employed seven of these individuals.

Lingering concern

Prior to the introduction of the degree programme at both universities, dental hygienists were trained by the Dental Ancillary School on Arthur Wint Drive, but that facility was closed in 2011. One dental hygienist who was trained at that institution in 2002 recalls non-absorption into the public sector as a lingering concern.

“We were, like, you are taking in dental hygienists and every year you are training more and more and more. Where are they going to go?” she said.

“Remember that the dentist does not have to hire a hygienist. The dentist has an option, and so if some of them decide that they are just going to do it themselves, or just take one, it makes it harder for the hygienists that are graduating,” she said.

She suggested that the Government should consider allowing dental hygienists to open their own practices where they can clean teeth and provide oral healthcare education. This is currently the situation in countries like Canada.

When contacted, Dr Christopher Tufton said his ministry is currently drafting a 10-year strategic plan, and that there currently is under way a major review of the structure and function of the ministry. He said that dental care, as well as eye and ear care, is among the areas under review.

“During the course of this year, we are going to be working on it, once we table the 10-year strategic plan, which will be done, hopefully, soon,” he said.

“We do have dental facilities in a number of health centres and hospitals. The concerns I have are the prevention side of oral health, which is the cleaning, the brushing, that sort of thing, particularly from the early age cohort in the schools,” he said.

Despite the restrictions, the DHAJ is currently trying to provide these services to the most vulnerable in the society with the support of sponsors and other stakeholders through outreach activities. The association, which celebrated its first anniversary on Wednesday, provided cleaning services to 150 children from the Maxfield Park Children’s Home and primary schools in the Corporate Area.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com