by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
Dental hygienists are enthusiastic about the science of dental hygiene, and, as a professional group, dental hygienists are motivated to use their skills and abilities to help find solutions to the oral health disparities in America today. Interestingly, if you take a look at the wide array of public health hygienists who have been spotlighted in this column since its debut, one word comes to mind: entrepreneurs!
Dental hygiene is still a very young, organized discipline. Although dentistry has most definitely embraced the model of the private practice dental hygienist, as evidenced by the number of hygienists employed in private practices, dental hygiene has not yet begun to realize the necessity of its science and practice in public health. Those hygienists who venture into public health seem to be self-starters, people extremely driven to improve the public’s health. Basically, entrepreneurs.
In the early days of dental hygiene, hygienists faced obstacles to establishing their role in the oral health community, including overcoming scarcely concealed opposition to their existence.1 In fact, because dental hygienists were basically unknown outside of Bridgeport, Conn., dental hygiene had to gain public confidence and acceptance.1 Further, in the third edition of Mouth Hygiene, the first college textbook of dental hygiene, the author states in the preface: “The actual results secured by dental hygienists in private and public service, particularly in the public schools, afford incontrovertible proof of the value of this type of preventive dentistry. Those who may still be skeptical are finding it difficult indeed to suggest any other means by which similar good results can be applied for large groups of people.”2
While working in a long-term-care facility in Connecticut, I had the honor of treating two of Dr. Fones’ and Irene Newman’s former patients, a brother and sister. The brother explained something quite profound to me. He told me that when his father started taking all seven of his children to Dr. Fones and paying to have his children’s teeth cleaned regularly, friends and neighbors thought he was a fool. They thought Dr. Fones had a pretty good scam going and believed he had been conned. Of course, his son (my patient) then went on to tell me that all of his brothers and sisters - with the exception of him and his sister, who were still living - had died with every single one of their teeth! And he felt very certain that his sister and he would have the same fate. What true entrepreneurs Dr. Fones and Irene Newman must have been.
Quite a few years ago, while working at Fones School of Dental Hygiene, I came across some brochures from the early Connecticut Dental Hygienists’ Association annual sessions. I hurriedly opened them up, wondering what topics would be covered since the science was still so young. The sessions included executives from the industry, health-care agencies, schools, and insurance companies, all there to discuss career options for dental hygienists and payment for dental hygiene services. Those dental hygienists back then were entrepreneurs!
I think the public health dental hygienists highlighted in this column carry on the entrepreneurial spirit of these early dental hygienists. We must continue striving to open doors by figuring out ways in which all of the public, regardless of income, race, age, or health-care needs, can receive adequate dental hygiene care.
1 Motley WE. History of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association 1923-1982. Chicago: American Dental Hygienists’ Association, 1983.
2 Fones AC. Mouth hygiene. 3rd Edition. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1927.
About the Author
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,” (www.prenhall.com/nathe), which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.