Th 331764

Community service

Feb. 1, 2010
Liaisons to public health
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Liaisons to public health

by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS

Dental hygiene and community service tend to have a seamless relationship. Dental diseases cause pain, infection, and disability, but can easily be prevented. Dental hygienists have the skills necessary to alleviate these diseases by providing care and education to members of the community. In fact, a specific domain of an entry–level competency for dental hygienists states that they must appreciate their role as health professionals at the local, state, and national levels.

This role requires the graduate dental hygienist to assess, plan, and implement programs and activities that benefit the general population. There are various opportunities for dental hygienists to become involved in public health. Many of these opportunities may involve changing careers; however, just as many opportunities exist that are part–time or involve volunteering.

What is community service?

Community service means providing a service to a group within a community. This service may include clinical dental hygiene, education, or projects that promote healthy behavior. Because dental hygiene is a preventive profession and prevention is the most logical way to provide care to the masses, the community service efforts of dental hygienists complement the public health sciences, both from a scientific and practical perspective.

Being involved in community service is a tremendous opportunity for dental hygienists. We have the ability to use our skills to help others. Every year there seems to be more coverage about oral health and the specific role dental hygienists have in promoting oral health across the country.

There are numerous reasons for dental hygienists to become involved in community service. The most compelling is the benefit to the community. Community service programs can increase access to preventive dental care. In many cases, community service projects can lead to long–term solutions to dental care issues in a community.

Dental hygiene is a young profession, less than 100 years old, so promoting our practice is important. Community service projects can enhance the awareness of the important role dental hygienists play in providing care, which helps promote our vital role in health care. Being active in the community also helps individual hygienists. The gratification that accompanies giving to others should not be discounted. It feels good to help others, plain and simple!

Community service programs

Community service programs are a dental hygiene specialty! Most programs are designed to prevent disease in a target population. Prevention programs occur in a wide range of settings, including communities, schools, long–term care facilities, health care support groups, and daycare facilities.

A widely recognized and successful prevention program is the use of fluoride to prevent caries. Historically, communities fluoridated the school water supply, but now many areas across the country implement a school fluoride mouthrinse program instead. With this program, students take time out to “swish and spit.” Dental hygienists coordinate the program and instruct teachers how to administer it.

Dental sealant programs are also common in schools. Dental hygienists and, where required, dentists travel to schools to place sealants and provide oral hygiene instruction. This type of program enables students who may not visit the dentist to have the preventive benefits of dental interventions. It is an inexpensive method to prevent dental caries, especially in the 50% of the population that does not receive dental care via private dental offices.

A dental hygienist may implement a program to fabricate athletic mouthguards for sports teams. These programs are designed to prevent oral trauma and concussions and may be more frequently seen in middle or high schools due to the greater number of school–sponsored athletics in the upper grades. Remember that young athletes are more prone to dental trauma than more experienced professional athletes.

Long–term care facilities, or nursing homes, often hire dental hygienists to coordinate and provide dental care as a cost–effective way for their residents to have access to oral care. Preventive services can be provided on a routine basis to help residents maintain their quality of life and dignity, and dental hygienists can work with dentists to coordinate restorative and urgent dental care to the residents. Facilities benefit from the enhanced reputation for providing total care to residents, and because families are satisfied.

Dental health educational programs, another type of prevention program, strive to provide preventive dental health tools to large populations. Many are instituted in schools, such as programs where a dental hygienist visits a third–grade class to present 20 minutes of dental health education. However, many educational programs are sporadic and have no measurable outcomes assessment.

Dental hygienists may also develop and implement programs designed to promote dental health. A dental hygiene association, for example, may sponsor a poster–designing contest during Children's Dental Health Month. The students may be asked to design a poster that depicts a dental health message, with the winners receiving a prize and the association utilizing the poster on a billboard during the next legislative session. Another example of a promotional activity is the addition of a dental operatory to the children's museum. This helps send a message of exploration and applied science to children.

Initiating public health interdisciplinary programs is vital to the success and effectiveness of dental programs. Involving teachers, social workers, case managers, and other health–care providers in the dental programs helps integrate oral health into general health and promotes oral health as a valued service.

A personal perspective

I spoke with Faith Miller, from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Dental Hygiene Program, regarding community service projects she has coordinated for years. She has run Project Mouthguard, which was funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health, to change the policy concerning the wearing of protective custom mouthguards by children in grade school through high school. Faith looked at it as an opportunity for students to learn and work through a grant–funded program. During the special program, dental technology faculty and students assisted with fabricating the appliances. Children receiving the appliances on the same day not only had a quality, custom mouthguard, but also saw an exemplary demonstration of what collaboration between two distinct dental entities (dental hygienists and dental technologists) could accomplish in a short time frame.

Faith also coordinates the Dental Sealant Grant Program, funded by the state and supplemented via Medicaid reimbursements. Senior dental hygiene students, supervised by a dental hygienist and dentist, provide preventive care for schoolchildren during the year. During the summer they visit health departments, summer lunch programs, and social service agencies. The students also conduct an annual (now in its third year) oral cancer/blood pressure screening targeted to area African American churches. Faith's students have also been on mission trips to Mexico, participated in Operation Christmas Child, Relay For Life, Alzheimer's Walk, Diabetes Fair, and OCS at a senior center in town (part of their community course). They also do several rotations as part of a community and multicultural course. I asked Faith what community service meant to her. She said, “If we can't give back, what's our purpose for being here?”

Suzanne Luken, RDH, recently coordinated the first Sweet Tooth 5K Fun Walk/Run for the South Dakota Dental Hygienists' Association, with all proceeds going to breast cancer research and awareness. I asked Suzanne how she got involved in community service projects, and she said she noticed a need for dental hygienists to become involved in the community when she saw the mouths of children in a low income area of her state. She joined the South Dakota Oral Health Coalition at its inception, organized outreach programs in the small town of Dupree, and volunteered to work for the local Diabetes Association in a “Kiss the Pig” campaign. “Kiss the Pig” was a big media event to raise money for the Diabetes Association, since the pig was where we first got insulin. This was Suzanne's first experience at how important it is to work with other organizations to solve common problems.

This past year for National Dental Hygiene Month, Suzanne wanted to promote a community service project, and the idea for the Sweet Tooth 5K was born. Because October is National Dental Hygiene Month and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she was glad to collaborate to raise money for breast cancer.

Suzanne has also worked at securing oral health supplies for those in need, and most recently was involved in changing state laws so that dental hygienists can share their skills with all populations in need. Suzanne says that the contacts with organizations and the generous volunteers dental hygienists met along the way have made her involvement in community service projects very worthwhile.

A personal story

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA, was forced into an early retirement due to the chronic pain of degenerative disc disease. She taught at Ferris State University in Michigan for 30 years. With more free time to pursue her goal of improving the public's oral health, she has immersed herself in volunteer activities with the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program (RSVP) in both Michigan and Florida. RSVP, a national organization, provides volunteer activities for seniors 55 and over. Linda spent 25 years working with West Michigan Migrant Health Services as a dental hygienist during the summers in Michigan, and served for five years as a member of the Michigan Migrant Health Advisory Board where she was able to emphasize the importance of oral health. She also provided training programs to the migrant caseworkers, Head Start teachers, and others involved with migrant children.

Linda has provided oral screenings and oral health education via RSVP to several senior groups, the local library Lifelong Learning Center, several schools, the Amachi Program (children of incarcerated parents), and the Special Olympics. She recently returned from a trip to South Africa where she served as a delegate for the People to People program, representing the U.S. and the ADHA, and she hopes to pursue more international opportunities. She was the 2009 recipient of the ADHA Hygiene Hero award. She continues to provide CE courses, and always includes a few slides about her volunteer activities to hopefully inspire others. She says, “Volunteer work means the world to me and provides the outlet to feel like I am still making a difference in people's lives.”


Community service is providing a service to a group within a community. Dental hygienists have a unique ability to provide community service, since they already have the skills to provide preventive services that benefit communities. Most community service programs are designed to prevent disease in a target population and can occur in a wide range of settings, including communities, schools, long–term care facilities, health care support groups, and daycare facilities. Dental hygienists can serve as an inspiration to all when coordinating endeavors for the community!

Great Web sites for more information about community service opportunities

  • American Dental Association Children's Dental Health Month:
  • American Dental Hygienists' Association National Dental Hygiene Month:
  • Delta Dental:
  • Dental
  • National Children's Oral Health Foundation America's Toothfairy® :
  • Oral Health America:
  • Trident® Smiles Across America®:

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. 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.