Th Lynnbethel

State oral health director

Nov. 1, 2006
This month’s spotlight focuses on a dental hygienist who has a wealth of experience in the public’s health.

This month’s spotlight focuses on a dental hygienist who has a wealth of experience in the public’s health. Currently, Lynn Bethel, RDH, BSDH, MPH, serves as the interim director of the Office of Health in Massachusetts. In addition, she is the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors (ASTDD) liaison to the ADHA. (More on this organization and our collaborations next month.)

Lynn also mentors other dental hygienists as an adjunct faculty member at Mount Ida Community College Department of Dental Hygiene. She has lectured and published articles pertaining to public health in various venues. Further, she previously served as the program coordinator for school oral health programs in Massachusetts and has been very active in various dental organizations, including a stint as president of the Massachusetts Dental Hygienists’ Association.

What is so amazing about Lynn is how she became interested in dental public health - not necessarily dental hygiene - and here is her story.

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

Lynn Bethel, RDH, MPH
Click here to enlarge image

During the summers of my junior and senior years in high school I worked as a teacher’s assistant in a Head Start program. This was in the late 1970s. There was a woman who would come in and talk to the children about their teeth, look at their teeth, etc. I decided from that experience that I wanted a job like that. My goal for my life at that point was to drive from school to school to teach toothbrushing and check teeth. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I learned that the woman who visited the Head Start programs was a dental hygienist; so I then decided I was going to be a dental hygienist. The funny thing was that I had no idea that the “red-haired lady” who cleaned my teeth every six months was also a dental hygienist. It wasn’t until the first week of hygiene school when they pass out the mirrors and explorers that I had any knowledge that dental hygienists worked in dental offices. A dental office was not where I wanted to work; I wanted to work in schools, but I stuck it out for the next 18 months to get to the fourth semester when community dental health was in the curriculum.

How did you get into dental public health?

I don’t think I got into dental public health. I think dental public health was always in me, and dental hygiene was the path I took to express it.

Did you need additional education?

After graduating from hygiene school with my associate’s degree in 1983, I transferred to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., for my bachelor’s degree. I received a minor in sociology and a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in 1984. While there I volunteered to spend some of my summer on the Delmarva Peninsula providing dental treatment to the migrant workers on the Eastern Shore. During the day I would go into the schools and provide oral health education to the children, and at night I would work on a mobile dental van where the workers who had come directly from the fields would receive both preventive and restorative treatment. I always knew I wanted a master’s degree in public health, so in 1991 I began working toward that part time by attending the Boston University School of Public Health. I was the only person with a dental background. The other students worked in medicine or law, for large companies, nonprofits, etc., so it was a great educational experience. I wasn’t learning about dental public health, but public health and, in that, I learned how to apply the principles of public health to my interests in dental hygiene. I graduated in 1995 with my MPH.

What are your current positions?

I am the interim director in the Office of Oral Health, a consultant for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and I serve on the Massachusetts Coalition for Oral Health. In addition, I am a clinical dental hygienist (part-time) in the same pediatric practice I have worked in since 1987. I teach dental hygiene as a faculty member at Mount Ida College. I also serve as editor of Prevention Matters.

Do you have any exciting experiences to share?

Every day is a learning experience for me both professionally and personally. I have learned so much (and am still learning) about fluoride and fluoridation issues. One day, I might be consulting with local water operators, a dental professional, or listening to a resident of the state who has a question or concern about fluoridation. Another day I could be meeting with partners on a program we are developing, writing a grant, or working with dental hygiene students in a school-based sealant program. I can tell you honestly that I have never left work wishing I wasn’t doing what I was doing or wishing that I wasn’t a dental hygienist.

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

OK, here are my five recommendations in order:

  • Stop thinking and do!
  • Go back to school! If you have an associate’s degree, go get a bachelor’s degree. If you have a BS, go get a master’s degree. Education opens not only doors, it opens your mind. From one degree to the next you learn so much beyond your normal scope of thinking, and you experience yourself in different situations. Education is invaluable.
  • Consider every opportunity offered to you. It may be to join an oral health coalition or assist with a fluoridation campaign or a sealant program. But with each opportunity you’ll network with other professionals in public health and gain a lot of knowledge and experience.
  • Don’t let money be your guide. I noticed a few years ago that I always have just what I need. It may not be everything that I think I want, but it has always been what I have needed.
  • Remember that dental hygiene isn’t just about scaling.
  • Now this is a dental public health hygienist! 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,” (, which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.