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The many rewards of working in dental public health

Aug. 5, 2021
These hygienists discuss the “whys” of a career in dental public health: Why they do it, why they love it—and why you might, too.

The reasons a dental hygienist chooses a career in public health are endless. Many are led by a passion to serve populations with limited access to equitable preventive services. Some may be ready for a change in pace or practice. Or it can be a combination of reasons. The “whys” behind a career in public health will vary, but the public health path is one that is ever-changing and incredibly rewarding. We’re excited to share our perspectives on the path of public health and the critical role it plays in the health of our communities.

Many hygienists who find themselves working in the public sector have their own story behind why they chose a path in public health. Some may have grown up without dental care and may have suffered as a result. For those hygienists, their “why” may come from a place of wanting to ensure that everyone has access to necessary preventive services. A hygienist who comes from this type of background may find herself working in a school-based or community-based setting. Others may have experienced a loved one or patient go into a nursing facility and witnessed their oral health rapidly declining. This type of experience may lead to a public health career focused on improving oral health disparities among aging adults. They may work in assisted living, nursing facilities, senior centers, and other mobile settings as well as with like-minded agencies to improve access to care laws and opportunities for vulnerable populations.

And then there are some—many in fact—who go into public health because they want to make positive changes that will ensure that equitable services are accessible to everyone, as well as the opportunity to think outside the box and explore innovative approaches to eliminating oral health disparities.

The reasons behind being a public servant, while important, are not as important as what you do with that desire to serve. There are endless opportunities and modes of delivery to be considered in public health. While the model of delivery will vary, the overarching goal is the same—to improve the oral and overall health of as many people as possible using sustainable, affordable, and effective measures. That may look like a school-based program, such as Smiles Across Montana, where they strive to reach as many communities as possible at their preventive mobile clinics. It could also look like a program that may be geared toward education, advocacy, medical/dental integration, or legislative change. The opportunities are endless, and there is no wrong way to provide public health care.

The beauty of public health is that you get to fulfill a creative, innovative side while enriching the lives of others. A career in public health often leads to a sense of fulfilled purpose for the dental hygienist as well as the satisfaction of visibly making a positive difference in the lives of the people we are serving.

The recent pandemic has illuminated the need for action and has been a driving force behind the expansion of public health. Americans are experiencing an “aha” moment concerning access to care and the general public’s health. Your health and the health of your family are directly affected by the health of others. Dental professionals across the country are taking the initiative and stepping into the world of public health—in addition to the reasons we’ve mentioned, to seek and create more efficient, progressive, effective, and actionable plans to improve the overall health of the public. Public health is a perfect path for people who want to alter the status quo and start making a difference today! Public health measures are geared toward innovative and actionable plans that have the ability to reach millions of people at a time. The fundamental principles of public health are to improve and protect the public’s health and well-being.

And from what we've said here, you can see that dental hygienists are perfect for public health. We are the prevention specialists when it comes to oral health. Your education as a dental hygienist has prepared you for a career in public health if you so choose. We have the ability to improve oral health disparities by educating schools, seniors, and whole communities on the importance of good oral health and disease prevention. Working in public health often allows a dental hygienist to work to the full scope of their education. And in this realm dental hygienists are also able to bridge the gap concerning medical-dental integration. We are often working together with other health professionals to best serve our patients and to improve whole health because as we all know, oral health does in fact play a significant role in a patient’s health.

Public health is rewarding and contagious. Working in public health, we have personally witnessed dental professionals finding a new love for dental hygiene and dentistry. They see and feel the difference that they’re making for each individual—and whole communities—and they’re hooked.

We hope that this has provided new insight into the world of public health. It’s an ever-changing and expanding field, and we’re constantly learning and innovating our programs to best serve the public and our profession. Please feel free to reach out to us as we both love talking all things public health!

Editor's note: This article appeared in the August 2021 print edition of RDH.

Brooke Crouch, RDH, is a remote supervision dental hygienist with more than a decade of clinical experience in private practice, a state agency, and a federally qualified health center (FQHC). Crouch is an adjunct instructor and mobile dentistry consultant. She is vice president of the American Mobile & Teledentistry Alliance and she serves on several clinical advisory, oral health action, and community-based boards and committees throughout Virginia. Contact her at [email protected] or on her various social media at brookecrouchrdh.

Crystal Spring, BSDH, RDH, LAP, grew up on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and has more than 23 years in hygiene. Her experience includes her own mobile dental hygiene business, nonprofit, mentorship program, grant writing, and interprofessional education. Spring has spent the majority of her career working to improve oral health disparities in vulnerable populations. She has been an ADHA Trustee, ADHA/HuFriedy Master Clinician, 2019 Sunstar RDH Award of Distinction recipient, 2020 Today’s RDH Honor Award recipient, and a recipient of the Dimensions Six Dental Hygienists You Want To Know.