by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
This month I was fortunate to interview a dental hygienist who has a diverse background in public health. Michelle Hair, RDH, BS, was the “Golden Scaler” award winner in the Wayne County Community College Dental Hygiene Program in 1988, who went on receive her bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from the University of Detroit. She currently works with Head Start and Early Head Start as an oral health coordinator and has a fulfilling career in dental public health.
Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?
I always enjoyed going to the dentist as a child, but I had never been to a dental hygienist because my dentist did not employ one in his office. A hygienist used to come to my elementary school and I loved getting the fluoride treatments. I think I knew back then that I wanted to be a hygienist when I grew up. I did well in science classes in high school, so I wanted a career with the majority of classes being in science.
How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?
I worked in public health during a student rotation at the Detroit Institute for Children, which treated special needs children. In 1993, I applied for a summer job working for the Colorado Migrant Health Program as a dental hygienist. I provided fluoride treatments, sealants, and education to children who attended the migrant school. I realized that this was the type of dental hygiene I was passionate about.
I went on to work as the supervisor/coordinator of the Migrant Health Program in Denver the following year, where I supervised dental professionals throughout Colorado. Then I created a full-time dental hygiene position in Colorado Springs at the Community Health Center (now Peak Vista).
What are your current positions?
I am the oral health program coordinator for Head Start and Early Head Start children enrolled through Community Partnership for Child Development (CPCD) in Colorado Springs. Head Start and Early Head Start are programs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children through age 5 and their families. Head Start was created in 1965, and is the longest-running program to address systemic poverty in the United States.
I am responsible for the development and implementation of the oral health program serving approximately 1,135 Head Start and Early Head Start children. I provide clinical assessment and preventive therapies to children and also present dental topics to the dental and medical communities on oral health issues concerning pregnant women, infants, and young children. I also coordinate dental volunteers to provide dental education for parents during parent center meetings.
Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions?
There are so many rewards that come from working for CPCD. Head Start has clear goals set by the federal government, but each program offers the ability to be creative in meeting those goals. The comprehensive CPCD program provides a well-rounded approach to success. I appreciate that CPCD works with the community as a whole, not only the children and families it serves through its programs.
What advice would you give someone in choosing a career in public health?
If you are interested in public health, pursue opportunities that allow you to work in that area. Contacting local and state health departments may lead you to areas that have public health opportunities. Everyone has gifts and talents, so if you enjoy doing clinical hygiene, then that is an area where you can make a difference. If you enjoy public health, you might have to do something other than that initially, but it may lead to dental public health as you get your foot in the door. Don’t give up! Public health is not more or less valuable than clinical hygiene. What is more important is what you get excited about.
About the Author
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of Neaw Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health” (www.prenhall.com/nathe), which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.