A qualitative study of the occupational status and culture of dental hygiene in Canada

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Brownstone, Ellen G.
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Dental hygiene is a female dominated occupation, whose members provide preventive and therapeutic oral health services to the public. Generally, dental hygienists in Canada believe that the occupation of dental hygiene is being transformed from a semi-profession to a profession. However, minimal research has been undertaken to study the occupational dimensions of dental hygiene. Most research has been clinical and educational in nature. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore and conceptualize the culture of dental hygiene and its occupational status from the perspectives of its members, that is, dental hygienists and dental hygiene students. An integrated conceptual framework of symbolic interactionism and conflict oriented neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian theories of professionalism served as the primary basis for examining the phenomena under study. By using an interactionist approach, the investigator was able to explore and analyze the perceptions and experiences of the participants to determine whether or not they have a common understanding of the professional project of dental hygiene. In-person interviews were conducted with 48 hygienists and students who were representative of members of constituent groups within dental hygiene in Canada. A comparison sampling of dental hygienists who differed in education, practice, and regulatory factors by province/region was also made. This data source was supplemented with content analysis of selected documents. One core theme and four major themes emerged from the findings: Dental Hygiene in Transition (core), Development and Profile of Dental Hygiene, Relationships Between Dental Hygiene and Dentistry, Dimensions of the Professional Project of Dental Hygiene, and Dental Hygiene Education. The study uncovered similarities and differences in the conceptualization of the occupational status and culture of dental hygiene. Results of the research provide an initial understanding of the perceptions of dental hygienists with respect to the historical development of the occupation, self-identity, public image, cultural aspects and the changing nature of dental hygiene, educational practices, relationships between dental hygienists and dentists, and the dimensions of dental hygiene's professional project. Generally, participants believe that the professional status of dental hygiene is increasing, however, they were unable to articulate a common or concise understanding of the professional project of dental hygiene. The findings of this study provide a first systematic step in examining the complex culture of dental hygiene in relation to its professionalization.