The dental hygiene profession in the U.S. is in the process of establishing a direct access model of care and contributing to the creation of the profession of a dental therapist. The objectives were to analyse the professional role perceptions of dental hygiene students and registered dental hygienists in these times of change. Specifically, it was explored whether dental hygiene students’ current professional identities differ (i) from their expected future identities, and (ii) from dental hygienists’ current and (iii) past identities.


Survey data were collected from 215 dental hygiene students concerning their present and future role perceptions, and from 352 registered dental hygienists concerning their present and past professional identity perceptions.


Students’ future professional identity perceptions were even more positive than their very positive current perceptions of their professional role components. Students’ current perceptions of professional pride, professional ambition, work ethic and patient relations were more positive than dental hygienists’ current perceptions of these professional role components. A comparison of students’ current perceptions with dental hygienists’ current and retrospective descriptions showed that students were more positive than dental hygienists in each case.


The fact that dental hygienists had less positive role perceptions than dental hygiene students might lead to the conclusion that a loss of idealism occurs over the course of a professional lifespan. However, dental hygienists actually improved their role perceptions over time and students’ future descriptions were more positive than their current descriptions, supporting the interpretation that realistic optimism dominates professional role perceptions in these times of change.

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