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Seizing the opportunities

May 1, 2006
As a dental hygienist who works as a United States Public Health (PHS) Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lieutenant Commander Karen Sicard’s official title is Health Education Specialist for the CDC Division of Oral Health.

As a dental hygienist who works as a United States Public Health (PHS) Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lieutenant Commander Karen Sicard’s official title is Health Education Specialist for the CDC Division of Oral Health. She provides training and technical assistance in oral health education, and serves as a project officer for three state grantees and three congressional earmarks overseeing grant projects of approximately $1.3 million per year.

LCDR Karen Sicard, RDH, MPH
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In addition, Karen works with a three-member team to provide water fluoridation training to state engineers and water operators. She has spoken to groups all over the United States on dental public health treatment modalities, and she has received numerous dental hygiene awards, public health officer awards, as well as commendations throughout her career. Karen also had the wonderful opportunity to respond as a PHS officer after Hurricane Katrina. Lieutenant Commander Sicard demonstrates how much a dental hygienist has to offer to the public.

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

It’s a long story, but, to sum it up, I was a dental technician in the Navy Reserve - one weekend a month, two weeks a year - and working as a dental practice manager in southern California. The dental assistant in the practice went on constantly about how she wanted to be a dental hygienist because they made so much money. The more I checked into it, the more I thought about pursuing it myself.

How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?

I basically stumbled into dental public health by accident. It was 1997 and I was working for a practice in Grand Forks, N.D., when we had a flood that closed down the dental office and the city for over eight weeks. I realized that I needed a much more stable income to support my family. Since I had prior military service, I started looking into the public health service. Unlike the military, the PHS offers a commission to dental hygienists with bachelor’s degrees.

I went onto the Indian Health Service Web site and contacted the recruiter at the time - Kathy Smith - and entered my information. Once all of the paperwork was completed, I accepted a position as a community/clinical hygienist on a reservation outside of Billings, Mont.

I didn’t know where to start, since I was coming from private practice without public health experience. The only public health training I had received was in dental hygiene school and I was given the task of setting up community oral health programs. I was a little lost in the beginning, but things came together fairly rapidly once I got started. I started out with simple things - school oral health education, brushing with fluoridated toothpaste, then sealant programs, fluoride mouthrinse programs, etc. I read everything related to oral health and the Indian Health Service I could find, and I asked a lot of questions from people already in the field.

I don’t think hygienists need additional education to get into public health, but I would strongly recommend getting a master’s in public health along the way. It offers a broader perspective, provides additional skills and knowledge, and increases the opportunities for advancement.

What is your current position?

My position title is Health Education Specialist and I have lots of additional duties as assigned.

Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions.

I have had lots of great experiences - I love it! I like learning about public health measures, finding out what the science really says. I like the community education and setting up prevention programs.

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

Do it! Think outside the box! You can do it! Don’t limit yourself to private practice dental hygiene. We have wonderful organizational and program management skills. Use them. Go to USAJOBS.GOV, and type in program analysis, program manager, communications, administration, etc.

Think about education. I’ve never been sorry I had a bachelor’s or master’s degree even though, to be honest with you, I didn’t think when I was pursuing them that they would be much help. I couldn’t see the doors that would open up. I kept going for the bachelor’s degree because I was only a semester away and thought, ‘What the heck!’ I went for the master’s degree because I wanted more at the time and figured this would have to help. I didn’t have any idea about the opportunities that would open up each time.

I have never heard anyone say, ‘I should have never gotten that degree.’ There are tons of student loan programs, scholarships, loan repayment programs, etc., out there if you want to it make it happen. Life is full of opportunities and you only get one shot at it; you might as well do everything you can to be what you want to be.