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The multicultural approach

June 1, 2010
This month’s spotlight person holds local and national awards for her multicultural efforts in dental hygiene and her efforts in tobacco cessation.

by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
[email protected]

This month’s spotlight person holds local and national awards for her multicultural efforts in dental hygiene and her efforts in tobacco cessation. Nancy Mann, RDH, MSEd, has been a professor in dental hygiene for over three decades and started a dental hygiene program in South Korea. She teaches dental public health and continues to be an inspiration to students and dental hygienists alike. I had a chance to ask Nancy some questions.

Nancy Mann, RDH, MSEd

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?
I was inspired and encouraged by the dental hygienist at our family dentist’s office in Kingsport, Tenn., when I was in the eighth grade. I was accepted into the dental hygiene program right out of high school. I graduated with my associate of science degree when I was 20 years old. Afterward, I was thrilled to become a colleague with my childhood mentor in our local dental hygiene association. She was a support to me for a long time.

How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?
My first two years out of dental hygiene school I worked in private practices in the Appalachian Mountains. Tooth decay was so rampant there that I feel like I have been in public health from the beginning of my career. Back then we tried to soak as much stannous fluoride into those teeth as we could!

I feel like I entered dental public health education through the back door. A colleague who had been teaching dental public health and community dental hygiene accepted a position at another campus and asked me if I would take over for her. I was excited to have a new challenge. She mentored me with notes, books, conferences, and lots of phone calls. My master’s degree is in postsecondary education, so I immersed myself in service learning conferences, continuing education courses, and conversations with public health nursing colleagues and community partners.

What are your current positions?
I am a clinical associate professor of dental hygiene at Indiana University- Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind., where I teach dental public health and community dental hygiene. I co-chair a major health fair every October, am an active member of our local tobacco coalition, and serve as the ADHA Tobacco Intervention Initiative Liaison for Indiana. I also teach a nursing course for our university called Transcultural Healthcare, where I focus on preparing health-care professionals to be culturally competent in their practices.

Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions?
My public health and transcultural health-care courses really got me out into the community. With over 88 languages spoken in our local schools, Fort Wayne is an interesting city where immigrants and refugees settle. In particular, Fort Wayne has thousands of Burmese, in fact, more Burmese live here than anywhere in the world outside of Burma. A common feature about their mouths is the use of a betel nut quid that is held in the vestibule and releases a brownish red extract that bathes and stains the teeth.

There is a lot to teach this group about oral health, especially since they have never been to a dentist or had their teeth cleaned. A friend of mine is a Burmese dentist who cannot work in Indiana because he is foreign trained. His English is excellent and he has all that dental knowledge, so he helps us translate. For a class project, a group of my students made a video about oral health in the Burmese language. My friend recommended a translator, and he served as the consultant for accuracy and cultural competency. It was a large project that was very successful. The students donated the program to a local clinic that treats many Burmese people. Through this we learned a lot about integrity in medical/dental interpreting.

Important points include:

  • Do not ask children to interpret for family members.
  • Avoid idiomatic speech – no slang!
  • Speak directly to the patient.
  • The interpreter must be completely bilingual and medically trained so terms can be accurately communicated.
  • The interpreter must be able to understand and present information of a scientific or technical nature.
  • Translating medical documents accurately requires a native or near-native formal level of language proficiency, analytical capabilities, and deep cultural knowledge in the source and target languages.

What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?
Definitely go for it! I went to Kwangju, South Korea, when I was 22 years old to work in a hospital dental clinic as the first and only dental hygienist. I ended up starting the third dental hygiene program in South Korea and the first one outside of Seoul. I stayed until the first class graduated. That program is still going on today. I was present at the first organizational meeting for the Korean Dental Hygienists’ Association. Today they are a very strong association and have a world presence in the International Federation of Dental Hygienists. You never know where life will take you, but I am so glad I followed my heart to go to South Korea. I go as often as I can and absolutely love my South Korean hygiene colleagues.

Do you have anything else to share that may be helpful to other dental hygienists?
I interspersed my education and professional experience. I received my bachelor’s degree seven years after my associate’s degree, and my master’s degree 19 years after that. I had many wonderful professional opportunities between my degrees, and each degree took me to a new place professionally. My advice to new graduates is to see and experience as much of the world as you can. Don’t be in a hurry to settle down, but strive for advanced education. A PhD in dental hygiene cannot be far behind.

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” (, which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.

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