Early practitioners of oral health in Australia operated in the face of significant opposition, but genuine need. Post-World War I, childhood oral health care and education was limited and lacking. But proposals to meet these needs using dental assistants and oral hygienists, as they were then called, often met with resistance from members of the established dental profession. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that state governments overcame these objections, with the first dental therapy school opening in Tasmania in 1966 and the first dental hygiene training program commencing in South Australia in 1974.
It was 1976 before a Victorian School of Dental Therapy opened in Melbourne, and 1989 before dental hygiene practice was legalised in the state. Then, in the mid-1990s, the University of Melbourne emerged as a leader in the teaching of oral health, and it is at this point that we now mark 20 years of continuous oral health education at Melbourne.
In 1996, the University’s Dental School became the first such institution in Australia to offer both dental therapy and dental hygiene education. The University had been an early advocate for defining the training needs of the dental therapy workforce going forward and successfully bid to develop an appropriate course of study to meet these needs. The resultant Diploma of Oral Health Therapy was particularly unique in that dental therapists and hygienists shared a common first year of study – the first step towards the emergence of the oral health therapy profession in Australia.
By 1999, the University of Melbourne was the only institution offering a bridging program enabling dental hygienists to learn dental therapy skills and a similar program's available for dental therapists to add dental hygiene, further unifying the professions. This unification was cemented in the creation of Bachelor of Oral Health, commencing at the University in 2005 and continuing today, has now graduated over 350 oral health practitioners.
The Bachelor of Oral Health Honours was established in 2012, followed by the Graduate Certificate in Dental Therapy (Advanced Clinical Practice) in 2013. Once again, Melbourne led in offering the first graduate program in adult scope dental therapy in Australia and New Zealand, which has so far produced nearly 90 graduates. Graduates from all oral health programs have become leaders in the field, with many proceeding to graduate study, including PhDs, and utilising the skills, knowledge and connections built at Melbourne to advance the practice of oral health.
Satur J (2003) Australian dental policy reform and the use of dental therapists and hygienists, Deakin University
Satur J & Moffat S, (2012) Chapter 1: History of OH professions in Australia and New Zealand & Chapter 2: Development of oral health therapy in Tsang A (Ed) Oral Health Therapy in Australia and New Zealand, Knowledge Books, Sydney
Satur J, (2102) Chapter 7: University of Melbourne in Tsang A (Ed) Oral Health Therapy in Australia and New Zealand, Knowledge Books, Sydney
Satur, J., & Ryan, B. M. (2014). Adult Dental Therapy Practice- 20 years in the making. Australian New Zealand Journal of Dental and Oral Health Therapy, 2014(2), 1-6