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AGO 1953 No. 128 - September 04, 1953
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington


A licensed dentist need not necessarily be present at all times when examinations and prophylaxis are taking place.

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                                                               September 4, 1953

Honorable Della Urquhart
Director of Licenses
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 53-55 No. 128

Dear Mrs. Urquhart:

            You have asked this office for an opinion on the following subject, to-wit, an interpretation of RCW 18.29.050, reading in part as follows:

            "* * *

            "Licensed dental hygienists may be employed by boards of education of public or private schools, county boards, boards of health, or public or charitable institutions and in any dental office, but may operate only under the direct supervision of one or more licensed dentists.  The number of hygienists employed in any dental office shall not exceed in number the licensed dentists practicing therein."  (Emphasis supplied)

            Particularly, the question is whether or not a licensed dentist must be present in the office or clinic at all times when the hygienists are examining and administering prophylaxis to students.

            It is the opinion of this office that a licensed dentist need not necessarily be present at all times when examinations and prophylaxis are taking place.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]


            The statute clearly states that licensed dental hygienists may work only under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist.  There are no cases interpreting this particular statute, and we have found none construing a similar statute.  However, it appears that the key to the solution is the correct interpretation of the words "direct supervision."

            "Supervision" is not a word of precise import, and is broad enough to require either a supervisor's constant presence during work supervised or his devotion thereto of only so much time as is necessary to see that it complies with sound professional practice.  We cannot say that any specific amount of time per week in attendance at a school or clinic by a licensed dentist constitutes direct supervision within the meaning of the statute.  An examination of RCW 18.32.340, which reads as follows:

            "Any licensed dentist who permits any dental hygienist operating under his supervision to perform any operation required to be performed by a dentist under the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."

            and other sections of the statute relating to dentistry and dental hygienists, indicate that supervision means merely the authority to inspect the work of hygienists by the dentist.

            Obviously, the statute did not intend that a licensed hygienist, who must first possess certain technical qualifications, cannot function without a dentist actually in attendance while he is working, for the obvious reason that no dentist would get any work done himself.  Thus, if it can be said that supervision can be maintained over dental hygienists without actual physical presence of the dentist at all times, it would appear to be a question of how much time must be spent by a dentist at the actual scene of operations.  It should be left to the Washington State Dental Association and the contracting parties as to how much actual time will be required of the licensed dentist to be physically present for the purpose of controlling the work of the dental hygienist.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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