Background: Increasing the number of dental hygienists and expanding their scope of practice are two policy directions that are currently being explored to increase the supply of dental services in the context of projected oral health workforce shortages in Australia. Understanding factors relating to the employment of hygienists and the attitudes of the oral health workforce to dental hygiene practice are important in this policy debate.
Methods: A postal survey of a random sample of Victorian dentists, periodontists, orthodontists and hygienists was undertaken in 2006. Dentists and specialists were grouped into those whose practice employed or did not employ a hygienist. Data on the attitudes of dentists, specialists and hygienists towards various aspects of dental hygiene practice were explored.
Results: A response rate of 65.3 per cent was achieved. Hygienists believed that their employment made dental care more affordable (53.7 per cent) and improved access to dental care (88.1 per cent), while few dentists believed hygienists made care more affordable. Most hygienists believed they were capable of diagnosing periodontal disease and dental caries and formulating a treatment plan, but there was less support from employers and non-employers. Dentists were strongly opposed to independent practice for dental hygienists, although there was qualified support from employers for increasing the scope of practice for hygienists.
Conclusions: Dentists who worked with hygienists acknowledged their contribution to increasing practice profitability, efficiency and accessibility of dental services to patients. Hygienists and employers supported increasing the scope of dental hygiene practice, however the majority of non-employers opposed any expansion.