Most dental hygiene programs are only two years. However, Amy Funk says WVU program holds their students to a much higher level. The program is the only one in the country which is a four-year integrated program, meaning students start in the program as a freshman and finish as a senior.
She spoke to Managing Editor Jennifer Gardner about the high expectations she has for her students and her commitment to ensuring they learn everything which could possibly help them land a successful career.
If you could finish a degree like this in two years, why do you have a four-year program?
In our program, we have always set really high standards for our graduates which are often over and above what is necessary to get a degree in a two year program. Students complete a two-year research project, they see over 300 patients, they go on a rural health rotation, they complete over 125 hours of community service. You can earn a dental hygiene degree in two years, but here you’re going to get to experience a wide variety of patients and practice settings that other students do not get to experience. When dental hygiene students graduate, they are able to become licensed and get certificates for everything that is allowed in our state and the majority of other states.
What kind of values do you think students gain from working on a rural health rotation?
I would hope that it changes their outlook on diversity, because most people, in my opinion, think of diversity in different ways based on where you grew up and their personal beliefs. It is good to go to an unfamiliar, and potentially uncomfortable, area and learn how to interact with patients and appreciate everything the area and people have to offer. I don’t think anyone has ever come back and said the experience wasn’t worthwhile. It is a win – win situation; students get to see a different patient group than what they normally see at WVU, all while providing, while increasing their clinical skills and providing direct patient care that is either uncompensated or at reduced fee.
What kinds of oral hygiene problems do you see in WV that you might not see in other states?
There’s an extreme access to care problem because you may only have one dentist in a huge county. People who live there do not necessarily have transportation to actually get to the office. There is also a cultural viewpoint on dental care and whether or not it is important and necessary. When money is tight, dental care is usually the first thing that is cut. People are going to choose the going to the doctor over the dentist. There’s a general lack of education and importance placed on oral health and changing an entire value system is very difficult to do.
When someone doesn’t have adequate access to dental care, what problems might they run into?
The loss of teeth and the loss of function greatly affects their ability to eat and their self-esteem. Basic nutritional needs cannot be met when someone is unable to eat properly, either due from tooth loss or pain. Additionally, there is a substantial link between oral health and overall health in relationship to many diseases. It’s more difficult to gain employment because we are a visual culture, and you’re not going to hire someone to work at a front desk who doesn’t have their front teeth. Many people who are employed may not have dental insurance, and if they do, they may work in jobs where they simply cannot afford to take off. If you are working in a low-income job where you can’t take any sick days, you’re not going to take off to come to a dental appointment.
Is it difficult for dentists and hygienists to work in rural areas?
It’s hard to get people to go to areas where they may have a limited number of patients, which are on a limited income, and it is an area that is difficult to access. You have to really love the place. Our students are lucky to participate be able to practice and live in rural areas which lets them experience what makes the people and place special. We have a student graduating this year and she’s going back home to practice in a very rural area. We usually have at least one graduate who chooses to practice to the area where they completed their rural health rotation. Every student who completes the rotation experiences something positive and that is the best outcome of all.