Connecting Dental Hygienists Around the Globe

With: JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, Ph.D., President, International Federation of Dental Hygienists
Country: United States


If you’re looking for a leader to advocate for dental hygienists, you’d be wise to start with JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, Ph.D. She is the current President of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists. Dr. Gurenlian is Professor and Graduate Program Director at Idaho State University and an adjunct faculty member at Burlington County College and Montgomery County Community College. She is also an entrepreneur offering consulting and continuing education services to health care professionals.

A strong dental hygiene voice for more than 35 years, Dr. Gurenlian is internationally recognized as a leading dental education leader who addresses issues related to the dental hygiene process of care, oral pathology, oral medicine, diabetes, women’s health, women’s cancers and leadership and professional development.

ADEA asked Dr. Gurenlian to share issues currently facing the profession of dental hygiene. Here’s what she had to say.

1. Why are women more attracted than men to a career as a dental hygienist? What are some of the misconceptions and stereotypes about women in these roles?

Gurenlian - Need quote The position of dentist or doctor was traditionally male. More than 100 years ago, when dental hygiene was founded, it was based on the assumption that women were subservient to men in life, and therefore, should be in health care. The position of dental hygienist was one that was meant to be nurturing and a role that required a woman to do tasks that assisted the dentist in preventing and promoting oral health. The dental hygienist was supposed to take direction from the dentist and serve as an extension to his role.

Unfortunately, even with times changing, the view of dental hygienist has changed very little. Dental hygienists have typically been less inclined to seek independence and autonomy as well as to be held accountable for functioning as a primary health care provider. Although the roles of dental hygienists have changed, many have continued to subscribe to the dentist as the authority figure and decision-maker—rendering it difficult to move from a subservient role to the professional. This is compounded by years of education in which subservience was promoted. There is a collective concern—among individuals as well as national, state and local associations—about whether or not dentists will approve of or like our stance on issues and our concept of our contributions to health care. Changing misconceptions and stereotypes is difficult, especially when dental hygienists today are taught to be “flight attendants” instead of “pilots.”

What attracts individuals to a career as a dental hygienist now is the flexibility of career options, ability to support a family through the income earned, capacity to improve the health of the public and a desire to work in health care (although not necessarily in that order).

2. Since most dental hygienists are women, do you see a unique role for dental hygiene in improving public oral health around the globe? Do you think the profession could benefit from more male participation?

I do see an important role for dental hygienists in improving the health of the public around the world. As preventive specialists, dental hygienists need to utilize their skills to affect change in health policies and influence individual behaviors. Having dental hygienists create oral health homes in communities and addressing the prevention issues that are far-reaching would have a greater impact on improving the health of the public, more so than performing technical removal of deposits from teeth. What holds dental hygienists back is the recognition that they could be influencers and change agents in the community environment, but to do so they would need to reach those patients who cannot readily access health care. Further, dental hygienists need to examine opportunities for participating on health care teams and providing other preventive services beyond oral health care.

I do not think more or less male participation as dental hygienists is the issue that is important. What is imperative is that dental hygienists conceive of themselves as primary care preventive health specialists and function in that role versus acting as standard clinical care providers in a dental practice setting.

3. What educational experiences are needed to change the perceptions of women in dental hygiene science and practice?

Changing the perceptions of women in dental hygiene science and practice requires advanced education to level the playing field among other health care providers. Further, it requires that dental hygienists receive additional experiences in professional socialization and identity, community action, health policy, leadership, administration/management and research and scholarship. Expecting this level of education and acquiring a two-year degree is not possible or practical. Advanced education will help dental hygienists think beyond the traditional role of auxiliary and look beyond the borders of a traditional dental practice setting.

4. How does the dental hygiene profession see interprofessional or collaborative models improving patient/client care?

Gurenlian - Removing quote With current research demonstrating a connection between oral health and general health, we have an opportunity to broaden our experiences and contributions to patient/client health by collaborating with other health care providers. Creating “teams” that are designed to provide positive, preventive and therapeutic care to communities with the goal of improving health outcomes is a strong argument for restructuring health care in general. Removing the line that seems to be drawn between the head and neck and the rest of the body will allow all health care providers to change their approach to health outcomes. We have to work toward removing the hierarchical system of health care providers and focus more on meeting the health needs of the public using our collective expertise.

5. What new territories are dental hygienists charting to help improve the oral health of this world?

Dental hygienists, both female and male, are establishing new territories for the provision of oral care in nontraditional settings, including long-term care facilities, hospitals, community centers, etc. Some dental hygienists are working independently demonstrating that they can deliver safe and effective care to those populations in need. Dental hygienists are becoming key researchers in the oral health field contributing to a knowledge base in oral health prevention. Others are extending into government agencies to help shape health care policy and improve health care systems.

6. From your experience with the IDHF, how do you view dental hygiene in the United States versus dental hygiene practice worldwide?

Dental hygienists from around the globe share many of the same professional experiences and challenges that we do in the United States. Expanding education and scope of practice, being autonomous and meeting the health care needs of the public are universal issues that are being addressed in many countries.

JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, Ph.D., is Professor and Graduate Program Director of the Department of Dental Hygiene at Idaho State. She is the President of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and Past President of the American Dental Hygienists Association. She has been active in dental hygiene for over 35 years as a leader, educator, clinician, administrator and researcher.

The Women Leaders’ VOICES series of articles by five women trailblazers and emerging pioneers explores various topics and issues facing the health sector worldwide. Each ADEA Women Leaders' VOICES article—which is hosted online by the American Dental Education Association’s 5th ADEA International Women’s Leadership Conference—features commissioned Q&A content for the global dental education, research, and practice community. Commissioned articles are branded with the ADEA Women Leaders' VOICES series signature design, and content is published consecutively over a period of time.  For additional information, please contact Sonja Harrison, M.S.W. at