A review of the literature on dental hygienists and their utilisation in the dental workforce is presented. Dental hygienists are employed as part of a dental team in the prevention and management of the two most common and costly oral diseases; dental caries and periodontal disease. The potential scope for dental hygienists in the public health sector in Australia is examined in the light of broader issues relating to changing disease patterns, service delivery and the treatment of patients with special needs. Prevention and treatment of oral disease by the dental hygienist in schools, institutions, nursing homes, hospitals and residential facilities is discussed, with emphasis on such issues as legislation, productivity and quality assurance. Implications for the future training of dental hygienists are presented and recommendations made for increasing their utilisation in the public sector.