The New Zealand Oral Health Professions' History

Dental Nurses and Dental Therapists

In 1921, the first class of 35 students started training as dental nurses in a two-year Department of Health course. These pioneer dental nurses led the way in establishing a School Dental Service (SDS) that would provide care for all primary school children and the majority of pre-schoolers by the mid-1970s. They established their own professional organisation in 1935 – the New Zealand State Dental Nurses’ Institute (later the New Zealand Dental Therapists’ Association and then the New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association).

Dental nurses became known as dental therapists in 1991 and dental therapy education moved from the polytechnic to the university in 1999. From 2006, the Government invested in the transformation of the school-based SDS to a Community Oral Health Service (COHS) emphasising preventive care. Dental therapists now register under the Health Practitioners’ Competence Assurance (HPCA) Act 2003 and continue to work in the COHS but are now able to also work in private practice.

First draft of dental nurse students with Richmond Dunn (Director of the dental nurse training school), Colonel Thomas Hunter (Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene), and James Parr (Minister of Public Health), 1922. Early Period [of Dental School] [Archives Reference: ABKI 667 W4078 1/] Archives New Zealand, The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua.

First draft of dental nurse students with Richmond Dunn (Director of the dental nurse training school), Colonel Thomas Hunter (Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene), and James Parr (Minister of Public Health), 1922. Early Period [of Dental School] [Archives Reference: ABKI 667 W4078 1/] Archives New Zealand, The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua.

Dental Nurse Students in Clinic, 1926. Early Period [of Dental School] [Archives Reference: ABKI 667 W4078 1/] Archives New Zealand, The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Dental Nurse Students in Clinic, 1926. Early Period [of Dental School] [Archives Reference: ABKI 667 W4078 1/] Archives New Zealand, The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Dental Hygienists

The dental hygiene profession has a shorter history in New Zealand. Dental hygienists were initially trained in the 1970s by the New Zealand Army to treat their own personnel but it was not until 1995 that the first class of dental hygienists graduated from Otago Polytechnic. Eventually dental hygiene education moved to the university as well, in 2001.

There have been many challenges and accomplishments along the way, including the formation of the New Zealand Dental Hygienists’ Association (NZDHA) and the passing of the HPCA Act 2003 to enact registration for dental hygienists. Today, dental hygienists work primarily in private practice in New Zealand. 

The first dental hygiene graduates from the Otago Polytechnic, 1995 (with their lecturers Paul Edwards (far left) and Gail Lightfoot (far right, front row)). Photo courtesy of Rochelle Jones.

The first dental hygiene graduates from the Otago Polytechnic, 1995 (with their lecturers Paul Edwards (far left) and Gail Lightfoot (far right, front row)). Photo courtesy of Rochelle Jones.

Oral Health Therapists

In 2006, Auckland University of Technology (AUT) introduced a three-year combined dental therapy and dental hygiene degree, the Bachelor of Health Science (Oral Health), and this was followed by Otago’s Bachelor of Oral Health (BOH) degree in 2007.

Oral Health graduates registered under the HPCA Act 2003 in both the dental therapy and dental hygiene scopes for some years. It was not until 2017 that an oral health therapy scope of practice was introduced by the Dental Council of New Zealand (DCNZ). Oral health therapists have a wide range of skills and work in both the public and private sectors, alongside their dental therapist and dental hygienist colleagues. 

A New Professional Association

The establishment of a new professional association, the New Zealand Oral Health Association (NZOHA), will provide professional support for dental therapists, dental hygienists and oral health therapists, as well as a stronger voice to advocate for all three oral health professions.

A timeline of New Zealand oral health professional education and associated legislation.  Source: Choi, Yunsun Jane (2021). The work experiences of a cohort of New Zealand oral health therapists. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Oral Health, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

A timeline of New Zealand oral health professional education and associated legislation. Source: Choi, Yunsun Jane (2021). The work experiences of a cohort of New Zealand oral health therapists. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Oral Health, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.