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Maximizing career options through public health

Feb. 1, 2012
This month, a multitalented dental hygienist who has a quietly assertive way of getting things done is spotlighted.

This month, a multitalented dental hygienist who has a quietly assertive way of getting things done is spotlighted. Paige Jensen is a former student of mine, and she has been instrumental in the development of many community projects within the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene’s community programs.

She came to UNM with tremendous experiences in the field of dentistry and a determination to attain advanced education. She is a role model for those wishing to pursue public health opportunities. I had a chance to discuss Paige’s past and present experiences and to ask her advice for those wanting more from their careers.

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

My first exposure to dentistry came about when I became a dental specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve. While working and training in the field, I learned about the different roles and responsibilities of the dental providers — the dentist and the hygienist.

While it is very interesting and wonderful that a dentist can take someone’s pain away by placing a filling, and “save” a tooth by performing a root canal vs. extracting the tooth, and even replace a lost tooth with an implant, I was much more fascinated by the role of the hygienist: prevention. What greater gift can you provide to someone than the education and the tools to prevent disease and oral problems, as opposed to treating them after they arise? The dentist may be the hero, but the hygienist is the guardian angel ... and that’s one heck of a job title!

How did you get into public health? Did you need additional education?

My interest in public health sparked about a year after graduating from hygiene school with my bachelor’s degree. I enjoyed private practice, but I always found myself feeling like something was missing; I wanted something more — something different.

For me, the first step on that path to something different was more education. I was very fortunate that my university provided a lot of public health experiences and opportunities to graduate students. I liked being able to test the water a little before jumping right in. And after a very short time, while once again back in the studying routine, in the midst of thesis-writing, and elbow-deep in every public health opportunity I could get my hands on, I realized I had found my missing piece.

What is your current position?

My position as a hygienist with the University of New Mexico is unique and multifaceted. I teach both didactic and clinical courses, such as dental biomaterials and dental anatomy, and I also practice dental hygiene in a wide variety of clinical settings. I am presently the oral health coordinator for the Sandoval County Community Health Program, where I specialize in the treatment of pregnant women and young children. I also provide preventive dental services to middle and high school students through the UNM School-Based Health Program.

After eight years, my commitment with the U.S. Army Reserves was completed in 2010; however, I continue to volunteer as a civilian with the dental component of both the U.S. Army Reserves as well as the U.S. Army National Guard. I am an active member of both the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the New Mexico Dental Hygienists’ Association, and I currently serve as a board member with the New Mexico Alliance of School-Based Health Oral Health Committee.

The running joke with all my friends and family is what a wonder it is that I drive to the right place each morning, since every day is different in my schedule.

Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions?

In public health, I’ve found that it is actually more difficult to have experiences that are not interesting. Although I find challenge and reward in almost every day of my work in public health, I would say that overall the most interesting and one-of-a-kind element of my public health journey is the outreach component. The number of individuals who are unable to access dental care is astounding, and I love being able to pack up and take our supplies and services out to the community and provide care and education to those who need it the most. To provide this help to those who simply could not receive it otherwise is so unbelievably gratifying.

What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?

My advice is simple: go for it! There are so many public health opportunities out there, not only in existing community clinics, but the need for the development of new programs and clinics is vast and ever-growing. If there is one thing the world of dentistry needs, it is more strong and caring individuals to join the public health team. On top of that, public health and private practice are not the only options out there. One of the best parts of being a hygienist is the variety and flexibility of the job, and, of course, all the faces and places you meet along the way.

Do you have anything else to share?

I am very fortunate to have learned early in my profession to set my sights high. Looking back over the last few years, I can see that I have made it to this point in my career by allowing every possible opportunity to take me by the hand and lead me through more experiences. I have invested much hard work and dedication into my profession, and I can say with confidence and pride that getting my master’s degree has opened more doors for me than I can fit into my work schedule.

I am proud to be a dental hygienist and I strive to always hold myself to the highest standard of patient care and integrity. My hope is that my students and colleagues will share these endeavors with me, and together our profession will grow in strength and with the respect it deserves.

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health Research” (, which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at cnathe@ or (505) 272-8147.

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