Beth McKinney is a dental hygienist and case manager with the Montgomery County Public Health Department in Maryland. Beth graduated with honors from both the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Dental Hygiene and from Old Dominion University with a Master’s of Science Degree in Dental Hygiene.
She previously worked as a patient care coordinator with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. She treated medically compromised patients and acutely ill patients and provided oral health education for health-care providers. She also coordinated hospital care for patients in several research studies and participated in research studies. Beth has taught as an adjunct faculty member with dental hygiene programs in the area as well. She has also worked for the U.S. Department of the Navy as a dental hygienist and in the dental insurance industry as a quality assurance coordinator.
Beth is a member of Sigma Phi Alpha and was bestowed the Outstanding Performance Award, Naval Dental Clinic, the Employee Service Award at the National Institutes of Health, and recently was honored by receiving the Sunstar Butler/RDH magazine Award of Distinction (September 2005 RDH).
Beth has had a multifaceted career in dental public health, working in different areas. A dental hygienist who has the skills to practice in public health and by advancing his or her education will only make it that much easier to find those opportunities!
Recently, I asked Beth a few questions.
■ Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?
I’m not sure it was a conscious decision. I was a dental assistant for awhile out of high school. I wanted to work in the health-care profession but all of my relatives were nurses, and they always complained about their jobs. So I thought dental hygiene might be the way to go.
■ How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?
Surprisingly, I have to say that I found all of my jobs in public health through ads in the paper. Traditionally, this is not reputed to be the best way to network and make career moves. I got into this right out of school when I took a job doing quality assurance for a dental insurance company. The only days I have ever spent in private practice as a hygienist have been as a temp. I quickly found that I loved the variety and autonomy that come with working in public health.
In order to be successful in public health, I really think you need a bachelor’s degree. An advanced degree certainly helped me be very competitive for jobs. Familiarity with statistics, research, budgets, and program management are all essential skills for working in the public health sector. Most of that kind of education you get in an advanced program. Having that knowledge made it very easy to adapt to the roles I’ve been called upon to fill.
■ What are your current positions?
I currently work for a county health department. I am responsible for the program that treats children and pregnant women. I deliver care, manage cases, and do statistical reporting. I am also responsible for clinic management and the supply budgets for three clinics. I teach students on rotation from a nearby dental hygiene program. I’m responsible for OSHA compliance, infection control, and quality assurance audits conducted on all dental programs the county offers. I do some group education too, when I can fit the requests into my schedule.
■ Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions?
I have a ton of stories. I’ve been told I ought to write a book someday. Being in public health is often amusing. Let’s see. Once when I was working at NIH, I treated a patient who was there for a bone marrow transplant. He required 10 packs of platelets prior to the scaling visit. When I was cleaning up, I picked up the instrument cassette where an explorer was poking out from underneath and punctured my finger. Up at occupational medicine, when responding to the questions about the source, I had to tell them there were 11 sources and they’d have to contact the blood bank. Even so, I still had to get in line behind the guy who had gotten bit by a monkey. At NIH, I worked with an oral medicine resident who was researching oral manifestations of McCune-Albright syndrome. One of my jobs while helping him turned out to be spinning urines to look for vitamin D excretion levels. That brought a new meaning to how we’re always telling people the mouth is connected to the body.
When I worked for the navy, the clinic had a mobile dental van. It was always fun to get the opportunity to go out to the submarines and see patients. When I worked for the dental insurance company, I used to travel all over the country inspecting dental offices. I saw some interesting things back in the late 1980s. There was the dentist who sterilized his instruments in a toaster oven. There was another who sterilized his instruments in a G.E. kitchen oven he kept in an operatory.
■ What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist that is thinking of doing something different?
Do it. You won’t regret it and you will never “burn out.” You may need to expand your skills, or get additional education. Expect to make less money at first. But also expect a better benefit package. And remember, benefits add about 30 percent to your salary. All in all, public health is much less stressful and much more fun than private practice.