Purpose: The aim of this study was to determine the knowledge, opinions, and practices of dental hygienists in the areas of dental caries etiology and prevention.
Methods: A pretested, validated 35-question survey instrument was mailed to a one percent national, stratified random sample of dental hygienists in the United States (n = 960) in October 1996. Four complete mailings of the instrument resulted in a 67% response rate, of which 77% were useable (n = 498). Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with statements on caries etiology and preventive procedures, and also asked to rate the effectiveness of procedures for preventing dental caries in children and adults. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics, t-tests, and ANOVA.
Results: Overall level of knowledge of caries etiology and preventive procedures was low. More than 40% of subjects did not recognize that remineralization is the most important mechanism of action of fluoride, and fewer than 50% recognized that dental caries is a chronic infectious disease. Analysis of four factors thought to be related to knowledge and practice showed that younger graduates, more recent graduates, and ADHA members were more knowledgeable about the effectiveness of caries preventive procedures for children (p < .01). Although an overwhelming majority correctly agreed that adults benefit from fluoride and that root caries is an emerging problem, this knowledge was inconsistent with practice (p = .02). Fewer than 35% reported that they provide fluoride to adults of any age, or they wait until the disease is present. For children and adults who did receive fluoride treatments, a one-minute application of an APF gel or foam was most often provided.
Conclusions: Correct information about the etiology and prevention of dental caries is a predisposing factor to making informed decisions. Overall, respondents overrated the effectiveness of flossing and toothbrushing while underrating the effectiveness of fluorides. In the majority of cases, efficiency rather than efficacy was given priority when providing a topical fluoride treatment. An improved understanding of dental caries etiology and the scientific evidence for appropriate caries preventive procedures will allow dental hygienists to prevent and manage this disease better.