Allies in Oral Health

A new course at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine educates dentists and hygienists in tandem

dental student and dental hygiene student working together on a patient

The scene could be any routine dental visit. Avanthi Tiruvadi, barely visible behind her mask and loupes, peers into her patient’s mouth. As she performs a periodontal exam, she calls out the condition of the gums around each tooth, and Hannah Therriault enters the information into the patient’s electronic chart.

Yet both women are still students. Tiruvadi, D16, is at Tufts, and Therriault is a third-year hygiene student at the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. A new interprofessional training program developed at the School of Dental Medicine gives them the opportunity to work and learn side by side in the real-world setting of Tufts’ dental clinics.

Tiruvadi and Therriault have worked together before, and they constantly compare notes on what they have learned about patient care. “We never talked to [hygienists] before about what they learn versus what we learn, what’s the same and what’s different,” says Tiruvadi. “We were chatting so much last week just about how the instruments are set up.”

“Because we’re working with dentists, we get to see more than just preventative work,” says Therriault. “We get to see restorative as well.”

Tiruvadi is one of about a dozen Tufts dental students who signed up for the elective class this spring, and Therriault is among the eight Forsyth students selected to participate.

“Probably less than half of all dental students [nationally] have some collaboration with a hygiene school,” says Ellen Patterson, director of interprofessional education (IPE) at the School of Dental Medicine. Patterson developed the course, which also includes classwork. The lessons cover health-care ethics, the roles and responsibilities of each profession and the variable practice regulations in each state. The classroom sessions are meant to “address teamwork and communication skills to strengthen the functioning of the dental team,” Patterson says.

“When they treat a patient together, they learn about each other’s scopes of practice,” says Kristeen Perry, an assistant professor at Forsyth who oversees the hygiene students’ rotation at Tufts.

The IPE course was first offered as a pilot a year ago. Patterson runs the program with her colleague, Natalie Hagel, who was a hygienist for many years. Both women are assistant professors in the department of diagnosis and health promotion.

When Patterson joined the dental school faculty in 2013, hygiene students from Forsyth had just begun rotating through the Tufts clinics. She seized the opportunity to formalize the arrangement.

“We use this as a training ground to specifically look at interprofessional communication and teamwork,” says Patterson. “Everything they are learning could be applied more broadly to every collaborative patient care context.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the course is already fostering better communication and respect between the two professions.

“You learn there’s their way of thinking and our way of thinking, and we came to conclusions that incorporate both,” says Jennifer Sunkin, D15, who took the course last fall.

“It’s really important we learn now how to work with hygienists while we’re still in an educational setting,” she says. “I’m not a dentist yet, so I can still learn from you and you from me. There’s no hierarchy. We’re all in this learning environment together.”

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at

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