by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
I wish to cast the spotlight on a dental hygiene educator who has taught public health and research to many dental hygienists — Christine French Beatty. What is so exciting about Professor Beatty is that she doesn’t just teach it — she is a public health hygienist and researcher. She has published numerous studies germane to dental hygiene in peer-reviewed journals, and has had a multitude of experiences in public health. She is a member of Sigma Phi Alpha and Phi Kappa Phi, and has received numerous teaching and mentoring awards, which are a testament to her teaching skills. She has been a mentor to numerous dental hygienists interested in research. I asked Dr. Beatty a few questions about her experiences in research and public health.
Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?
My decision to go into dental hygiene was not all that intentional. When I was considering what to do after high school 46 years ago, the options for females were few. Because my dad was a dentist and professor in a dental school, I was drawn to the field of dentistry. Also, I was interested in dental hygiene because the program was only two years long. I was anxious to be able to earn a good living soon because my parents were older and my dad was close to retirement. So it was mostly a practical decision.
Even so, it was a good fit for me. I loved the detail of dental hygiene, and it afforded me the opportunities that I was seeking to become independent and earn a good living.
How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?
I liked public health in school but avoided it for a few years because of my anxiety. After practicing clinical dental hygiene for approximately 10 years, circumstances led me to a position as a research associate with the Dental Science Institute of the University of Texas Dental Branch in Houston. I was responsible for coordinating two projects that provided me hands-on training and experience in dental public health and research. The first was a three-year clinical trial to test a new formula fluoride dentifrice, funded by Proctor & Gamble. Through this position, I learned firsthand the skills involved in research. Because of the nature of the project, I also functioned much like a dental public health hygienist, working in the parochial schools of Houston to teach oral hygiene regularly, schedule examinations for data collection in relation to the project, and provide follow-up for the children who had active disease. The second project was a school fluoride tablet and rinse program in two school districts outside of Houston. Again, I coordinated the research side of the project as well as served as an educator and community dental health program administrator.
This position was such a change from clinical practice, and I loved it! It gave me a new challenge, helped me develop new skills related to management and coordination of programs, allowed me to have a more flexible work schedule, and provided employment benefits that I did not have in clinical practice. I learned many of these new skills on the job, but I also returned to school to complete my bachelor’s degree, knowing that I wanted to expand my dental hygiene career opportunities beyond clinical.
What are your current positions?
I am a professor at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) Dental Hygiene Program. With my background and love for dental public health and research, I was hired to teach the community and research content areas of our bachelor’s degree program. This has been a great fit for me since it requires development and coordination of community programs and research. As well as serving as Community Dental Health Coordinator for our program, I have the wonderful opportunity to develop a research program for our dental hygiene students and to serve on research committees for master’s theses and professional projects for students in dental hygiene, health studies, and occupational therapy programs.
In my faculty position, I have served various times as clinic coordinator and/or program director. My public health background has helped provide insight into how to “round out” the students’ clinical and other education opportunities to include public health experience. I have found that having a faculty with a combination of clinical and public health in their backgrounds enhances the program.
Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you’ve had in your dental public health positions?
I love dental public health because of the variety of activities and responsibilities. It allows us to fill all the roles of the dental hygienist. Not only does it draw on my knowledge of dental hygiene clinical practice, but it challenges me as an educator, researcher, administrator/manager, and change agent.
One position early in my career was as a school dental hygienist. Among other responsibilities, I followed up with Head Start children who needed dental treatment. I remember driving through town with a carload of wiggly children, transporting them to dental offices for treatment. Also, because I was part of the health care team, I was called on to participate in lice checks!
In another position, I traveled from school to school to coordinate programs, and even went to the children’s homes to meet with parents to supervise the children’s use of test products and follow up on treatment needs. I loved the flexibility of the schedule and the opportunity to be out in the field.
Can you discuss the research you have conducted and its importance to dental hygiene and public health?
As an educator, most of my research has been related to dental hygiene education. However, my students have varied clinical research interests that we have pursued for their research projects. I remember the first research study that I personally conducted in the 1970s. It was when I was working at the Dental Science Institute. My immediate supervisor was a dental faculty member who taught research to students in the periodontics specialty program. I got a small grant funded by the dental school for a clinical trial to compare the effectiveness of waxed and unwaxed floss. The perio students served as subjects.
I was so proud to get that project funded, completed, and published, and I had so much fun doing it! It really motivated me to continue on the research path.
One of my first publications was a description of a community dental health program that I was involved in through my local component. So many great programs go unreported, which is unfortunate for our profession. As a result, I don’t think the dental profession and the public realize the impact that dental hygiene has on the oral health of the community.
My research experiences have been varied. Some examples of my topics include job satisfaction among dental hygienists, admissions criteria for dental hygiene programs, evaluation of teaching methods, and testing the effectiveness of new oral hygiene products for manufacturers.
Research skills are so basic to evidence-based practice that I can’t imagine making decisions as a dental hygienist, no matter the role or setting, without doing research. For example, one of my senior student’s research projects last year was to evaluate the effectiveness of our dental hygiene clinic’s referral system for sealants. We wanted to verify that we were maximizing the number of sealants placed in children who came to our clinic, to help meet our nation’s goal of increasing the number of children with sealants. Another student implemented a fluoride varnish program under my direction, and we evaluated the program with the goal of implementing it on a larger scale in the future. Making decisions about programs and treatment has to be data driven, and that means doing research.
What advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?
Network, network, network! All of my opportunities to do something other than clinical dental hygiene came as a result of talking to many people, being active professionally in the local, state, and national associations, and volunteering for community service.
I can’t stress enough the importance of active involvement with our association. I met so many people, was continually aware of trends in the profession, and gained incredible leadership skills through this participation. It is also important to maximize whatever position we are in. For example, when I was in clinical practice, I continually evaluated our procedures and treatment to stay on the cutting edge. I also took advantage of all opportunities to attend conferences, learn more, connect with new people, and be involved in the community.
Another recommendation I have is for graduates to stay connected to their dental hygiene program and faculty, who can continue to mentor them. I was fortunate to have mentors who guided me as I sought new opportunities and gained the necessary skills and experience.
In addition, I suggest professional development to increase leadership skills, as well as administrative/management and research skills. If a hygienist does not already have a bachelor’s degree, I believe that completion of a degree can open doors as well as provide a venue to learn additional skills and gain experience that will be valuable in dental public health and research.
Our degree completion students at TWU have opportunities to conduct and present research, develop community programs, and do internships related to their dental hygiene career goals. If a hygienist already has a bachelor’s degree, greater opportunities in dental public health and research can be created by completing a master’s program in dental hygiene, community health, or public health.
If you have anything else to share, please do.
Although the vast majority of dentists and dental hygienists practice in private settings, I am convinced that the future of oral health care is in dental public health. Only about half our population utilizes dental care on a regular basis. One has only to read reports such as the ADHA Dental Hygiene: Focus on Advancing the Profession, and the USDHHS Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General to realize that increasing dental utilization rates will require expansion of community programs.
As you can see, Professor Beatty is a profound example of the role of a dental hygienist in public health and research!
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” (www.prenhall.com/nathe), which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.