As Canadians age, there is an increased need for oral health professionals specializing in services for this unique population. Dental hygiene students require exposure to this population to develop professional competencies. This study investigated the dimensions of professional competence that were developed through a practicum for dental hygiene students in long-term care settings while working with older adults.
Nine dental hygiene students were recruited across two cohorts. All students completed reflective journals describing their practicum experiences. Five students also participated in an audio-recorded focus group and completed a pre-focus group questionnaire. Additionally, the practicum course coordinator completed an audio-recorded interview. Transcripts and journals were coded using a constant comparative approach and themes were identified.
Students described developing client-focused skills, such as effective verbal and non-verbal communication with older adults with dementia. Context-based learning was also a large part of the competency development for the practicum students. Understanding the care environment within which these residents lived helped students to understand and empathize why oral health may not be prioritized. Students also developed an understanding of the work of other health professionals in the settings and improved their abilities to communicate with other healthcare providers. However, students recognized that the utility of those interprofessional skills in private practice may be limited.
Dental hygiene students developed personal and ethical competencies during practicum that are highly transferrable across professional settings. Exposure of students to older adult populations in long-term care may increase the likelihood of dental hygienists working in this area.