Spotlight: Tammi Byrd, RDH

July 1, 2008
Tammi Byrd is an excellent example of a public health dental hygienist because she is definitely an entrepreneur!

Tammi Byrd is an excellent example of a public health dental hygienist because she is definitely an entrepreneur! She started a successful school-based dental program called Health Promotion Specialists, which treats thousands of children every year in South Carolina. I'm sure that many of these children would not be treated without her tireless efforts to operate this program. She is a prime example of a dental hygienist reaching out to the dentally underserved population. Tammi also teaches at Midland Technical College in South Carolina and has held numerous officer and council positions with the American Dental Hygienists' Association, including her tenure as president of the ADHA. Tammi has received the ADHA Distinguished Service Award, the South Carolina Dental Hygienist of the Year (twice), and the South Carolina American Association of University Women/Women of Distinction Award. I asked Tammi some questions about her career.

Q Why did you decide to pursue a dental hygiene degree? A A very close friend of my family who was a grandfather figure to me inspired me to want to serve others in the health-care field. He was a physician who was always on the cutting edge. He was a family practitioner who designed the first neck brace, invented numerous "burn" creams and ointments used to this day, dabbled in acupuncture, and yet always had time to attend medical association meetings, paint, travel, and spend time with his family. I knew I didn't want to work hospital hours; dental hygiene intrigued me, and my dental visits were always pleasant.Q How did you get into dental public health? A That's a good question. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I'd be working in public health, I would've said no. I loved private practice periodontics and was a good clinician. But I have always been very active legislatively since I graduated. When I graduated, dental hygienists in South Carolina were able to work in schools and provide the same services my current program provides. The original program was strongly opposed by organized dentistry — to the point that our state oral health division was shut down. I had seen the benefits and gotten involved in the lobbying efforts to allow dental hygiene services to be delivered again, with or without the division. Long story short, 20 years later, it was imminent that dental hygienists would again be able to work in school settings with the passing of new statutes that allowed delivering services without an exam by a dentist. I met with the policy advisor for the South Carolina Department of Health to discuss restarting our state public health dental hygiene division. I was told that the state was not interested in being involved with the delivery of services. I inquired as to how they thought the law could be implemented without such a program.

The Department of Health understood the need and did not know how it would come about. I left there feeling bewildered. After much soul searching and prayer, I knew it had to be done and that I, with God's help and the support of my husband, would make it happen.

Q Did you need additional education? A With God as the pilot and myself as the co-pilot, anything was possible. Easy? No. I had read, researched ,and studied the supporting evidence and workings for public health programs when preparing for the legislature. Hindsight tells me that having a better understanding of business would have been beneficial prior to starting a business. However, with the wealth of friends and colleagues that I have developed throughout my membership in ADHA, I had wonderful mentors I could count on for advice and prayers.Q Tell us about some of your interesting experiences. A The entire experience has been interesting. I'm still amazed that even after seven years, a ruling by the South Carolina administrative law judge division in our favor, a civil suit settlement with the South Carolina Dental Association, and a FTC ruling against the South Carolina Board of Dentistry, I am still having to defend the merits of dental sealants to school board members, principals, and school nurses because the "local" dentists have told them that dental hygienists are sealing in cavities and the children will end up with "blown-up" teeth. It can be frustrating. But, one by one and group by group, we are educating the masses about the benefits of prevention.

When I see the smiles of the children we treat and hear the school nurses say there are fewer dental problems now, I know we're making a difference. We now have some dentists calling and asking us to take referrals from our school-based program.

Q Any advice you could give us? A Understand cash flow; that being a boss can ruin friendships; that you must have the passion to stick with it; and you must have the desire to continue climbing the ladder of lifelong learning. Dental hygienists are in the best position ever to make a difference in the oral health of this nation. The consumers are going to demand increased access to services. We need to be prepared to deliver.

Tammi is a wonderful inspiration about how many lives a dental hygienist can touch by reaching out!

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