Many times when hygienists think of public health, they remember back to college days when they packed up the big toothbrush demos and traveled to an elementary school to discuss the importance of dental health to the students. It usually conjures up rewarding memories. Or maybe they remember memorizing mean, median, and standard deviation for the community dental health section on the National Boards. Maybe not quite as exciting, but we did end up passing! What I do know is that for the last several decades, upon graduation, most dental hygienists put away their big tooth models and aids and settle into a private dental office, providing dental health education one patient at a time. Most of us go into the dental hygiene profession with hopes that our education is leading us to a rewarding practice in a private dental office, providing individual patient care daily. Many of us love the individual patient interaction; however, I also realize that we are only reaching 50 to 60 percent of the population in private dental offices. We are fortunate that there are so many exceptional opportunities in our profession, and it is exciting that we can be part of the solution to the dental care delivery challenges in the United States today!
And, yes, times are changing. The first line of the ADHA Focus Report, Public Health section, states that much has been written about the current state of the dental public health workforce, and discusses what actions are needed to enhance its capacity and capability to address the significant oral health problems facing the entire nation. Fortunately, dental hygienists are capable of making productive, positive changes in dental care delivery. Dental hygienists are becoming important policy makers in the dental public health arena. Because of changes in supervisory status affecting many states, hygienists do have endless opportunities to expand and grow.
I know many hygienists think that careers in public health are low paying or volunteer only. In fact, many careers in public health have salaries equal to or greater than what is offered in private dental offices. Many times, hygienists working in public health have the ability to move up the ladder - in responsibility, autonomy, creativity, and pay. Most public health opportunities have lucrative fringe benefit packages. Public health opportunities offer so much to the dental hygiene profession.
With more opportunities in public health, hygienists need to realize that the knowledge they already possess can, in turn, lead to careers in administration, policy making, health education and promotion, and research.
In fact, many restraints inherent in private practice (producing revenue, for example) are not felt in the public health sector to such a great degree, and the reason is not because billing issues do not exist, because they do. It is because hygienists realize there are other effective methods to prevent oral disease and maintain oral health. Fortunately, public health hygienists still have the opportunity to provide clinical care; however, they also have the time and ability to create public health programs, participate in policy making, conduct research, and manage programs.
Frequently, dental hygienists in private dental offices feel that their creative ability is limited by the employer/dentist’s ownership. However, in public health, creativity is the most important aspect of the position.
This column will introduce dental hygienists to the wide-reaching opportunities available to them, through profiles of public health hygienists, career information for those interested in public health positions, educational opportunities, insight into public health issues facing the United States today, and synopses of government reports on oral health. As a profession, we have the ability to be proactive in dental care delivery issues, and provide solutions that can have a tremendous effect on dental public health within the United States. Dental hygienists need information on how to effectively position and practice dental hygiene in the public health setting.
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is an associate 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.