An Interview with Tammi Byrd, RDH

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Tammi Byrd, RDH

Passion for improving the oral health of the masses drives career

Tammi Byrd, RDH (Registered Dental Hygienist) has some valuable advice for those seeking to embark on training and a career in dental hygiene: "Don't ever settle for average. Anyone can reach that goal." Ms. Byrd has certainly followed her own wisdom. She has extensive clinical experience with dental hygienist experience in periodontics, family practice and pediatric dentistry, and is currently the CEO/clinical director of Health Promotion Specialists Inc., a group that administers school-based oral health programs. In addition, Byrd is an adjunct clinical course instructor at Midland Technical College in Columbia, S.C., where she previously received an associate of science degree in dental hygiene.

Ms. Byrd, an active member of the Chicago-based American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) since 1977, has served nationally as president, vice president and district trustee, and has held numerous positions as council, committee chair and member.

She was president of the South Carolina Dental Hygienists' Association (SCDHA), as well as an ADHA delegate and the chair of numerous committees. At the local level she has served as both president and vice president of the Greater Columbia Dental Hygiene Association. "I truly believe that upon graduation, each individual has a choice of pursuing a job or a profession. If you want to be a professional you must be involved with your professional association," she notes.

Byrd is likewise actively involved with the South Carolina Healthy Schools Oral Health Coalition, the South Carolina Tobacco Free Coalition, the South Carolina, Robert Wood Johnson, Smiling Faces Grant Steering Committee and the Maternal Child Health Education Task Force. "When I am no longer in this world, I want to know that I made a difference in the lives of others through improved quality of life. I believe involvement in these initiatives creates change for the better," Ms. Byrd says.

Her professional efforts have not gone unnoticed. She is the recipient of the ADHA Distinguished Service Award, a two-time recipient of the SC Dental Hygienist of the Year Award and recipient of the SC American Association of University Women, Women of Distinction Award.

Ms. Byrd & Her Career

Tell us about your dental hygiene career. What led you to shift from a clinical care focus to become the CEO/clinical director of a school-based oral care program organization?

I worked in pediatric dentistry for the first year of my practice and then moved to a family practice closer to my home. I worked there for 8.5 years and moved to a periodontal practice for the next 12.5 years. During this time, I was always involved with my professional association and worked with our Council on Regulation and Practice. I had seen the inequities of oral health status of different populations and knew that dental hygienists were not utilized to their full potential and that some of the neediest populations did not have access to preventive services and not aware of the value of good oral health.

The South Carolina General Assembly passed legislation in 2000 to allow registered dental hygienists (RDHs) to work in schools, nursing homes, etc. without the presence of a dentist. At that time, I met with the policy advisor for our state department of health and environmental control. The state had utilized RDHs in the early 1980s to provide preventive services in schools and had a very successful "Newberry Sealant Project." The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reinstatement of this program with the statute change to allow the services again. I was informed that the state did not want to directly provide the services but would prefer to oversee them. I was quite surprised and disappointed because I knew of the great needs in our state schools. It was at that time that God laid it on my heart that no one would provide the much-needed services unless I did. It was a leap of faith and has been a character-enhancing opportunity.

You have extensive clinical experience as a dental hygienist in periodontics, family practice and pediatric dentistry. What differences and similarities are found in these clinical settings?

All settings utilize the dental hygiene education but the personalities, age differences, and presence of disease determine the treatment plan, how you present your dental hygiene treatment plan, teach patient education, and utilize different home care products.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What are your key responsibilities?

As CEO/Clinical Director of a statewide school-based program, my day is quite different from when I was practicing clinically. I spend a lot of time involved with public relations - networking, marketing, and working with the clinical RDHs to assure that our relationships on the local levels are maintained at the highest levels. I keep close tabs on the legislative arena through tracking systems of our state legislature to monitor any changes that could affect how our services are delivered. I visit RDHs onsite, review new products, and work diligently to stay abreast of current literature and research and assure that it is disseminated to the staff. I also arrange to have speakers annually on cultural awareness, infection control, child abuse recognition and prevention, oral pathology, medical emergencies, CPR recertification, etc. to ensure continuing competency of our staff.

You have served nationally in leadership positions including president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association, and have likewise served the South Carolina Dental Hygienists' Association and the Greater Columbia Dental Hygiene Association. How has your involvement benefited your career? What can emerging dental hygiene professionals expect from membership to national, regional and local professional organizations?

My involvement with my professional association has been the lifeline of my career. It has kept me informed, involved and energized. I truly believe that upon graduation, each individual has a choice of pursuing a job or a profession. If you want to be a professional you must be involved with your professional association. They speak for the profession and I want to make sure my voice is heard. Involvement moves an individual from average to excellence.

In addition to serving in numerous capacities for the professional organizations, you are involved with numerous public health initiatives. What drives you to be so professionally active?

When I am no longer in this world, I want to know that I made a difference in the lives of others through improved quality of life. I believe involvement in these initiatives creates change for the better.

You have received numerous awards and honors for your service, performance and involvement in the field. What do these honors mean to you on a personal and professional level?

Personally, it is an honor that me that my colleagues consider me worthy. I have done nothing more than many of them have and have enjoyed the camaraderie on the journey. Professionally, I hope that it will instill a "passion" in other individuals to get involved and make a difference.

What are some favorite projects that you've been involved with in your career? What makes them stand out?

The current school-based sealant program I am working with now is extremely rewarding. The hugs, hand-made cards, and letters of appreciation from the children, parents and school administrators stating the impact our services have had on the lives we touch daily makes it all worth while. We have been enormously challenged by private practitioners and organized dentistry that sealants are not safe and should not be placed by dental hygienists without a personal exam by a dentist. The opposition was so great that the Federal Trade Commission brought formal charges against the South Carolina Board of Dentistry and the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors (ASTDD) requested that the Centers for Disease Control convene an Expert Panel on School-Based Sealant Programs to again review the evidence. The evidence is clear that sealants are effective and safe and the CDC has committed to disseminate this message to dental practitioners. They are scheduled to release new guidelines for these programs late summer 2006 along with the evidence documenting the findings. Barriers to access and preventive services are being broken down. This is the ultimate goal to improving oral health. No disease has been eliminated through a treatment program. We must capitalize on prevention.

Another great project was the tobacco cessation program implanted by ADHA - the "Ask, Advise and Refer" program. Living in a tobacco state, I have seen the firsthand effects of this horribly addictive drug.

Education Advice

You earned a dental hygiene associate's degree from a technical college. Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

An associate degree in dental hygiene is much more than a two-year degree. It is just shy of a bachelor's degree. If I could change something, I would have gone straight into a bachelors program and completed it. I would eventually like to have my master's degree and/or a certificate in public health.

What factors should students consider when choosing a dental hygiene school or program?

Look for a bachelor's program or assure that the school has a matriculation process in place to attain the bachelor's degree. You spend far too much time on your education to settle for an associate degree.

How can students considering an education and career in dental hygiene assess their aptitude for the field?

I think caring for others should be first and foremost. After that, good manual dexterity and a desire for life-long learning.

What can students applying to dental hygiene programs expect during the admissions process?

Students should expect several interviews, testing for manual dexterity, and an aptitude test.

How should students expect the curriculum to prepare them meet the trends and challenges the field of dental hygiene faces over the next decade?

There will increased emphasis on public health. Many programs are implementing different career tracks for dental hygienists - public health, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, etc.

Based on your experience as an adjunct clinical course professor, can you offer any tips to students starting dental hygiene training?

Don't ever settle for average. Anyone can reach that goal.

How could the dental post secondary educational system be changed to better serve students and society as a whole?

Increased public health knowledge, understanding and experience.

Dental Hygiene Industry Trends, Information & Advice

How can the reality of a career as a dental hygienist differ from typical expectations?

I think that depends on whether you enter the field looking for a job or a profession. Anyone will get "burned-out" with a job. Additionally, individuals need to realize the long term wear on the body in a job that predominantly utilizes usually one side of the body. Get involved in yoga or some type of exercise on a regular that strengthens and stretches the body on both sides to maintain your personal health and well-being.

What are the best ways to land a job as a dental hygienist?

Know that you haven't settled for average and project this confidence when interviewing.

How available are internships or other hands-on learning experiences?

All accredited dental hygiene programs have many hours of "hands-on" learning experiences and most programs have rotations in settings outside of the schools in nursing homes, elementary schools, etc.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will develop over the next five years?

Dependent on where you live, the job market is usually very good. Dental hygiene is one of the fastest growing professions. The market will continue to drive this as consumers become more aware of the education and services dental hygienists provide. The barriers restricting direct access to dental hygiene care will continue to be removed over the next several years. You will also see advanced levels of dental hygienists develop that will increase opportunities for those pursuing a higher degree and increased responsibilities.

What can recent dental hygiene school graduates expect as a salary range starting out?

This is directly affected by the region of the country you live in and is usually proportionate with the cost of living. Alabama is the only real exception, as dental hygienists in the state are not required to have a formal education and the salaries are directly affected by this.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the overall field of dentistry that will impact the dental hygiene profession?

The need for increased access to care is one. There will be the development of a mid-level practitioner to provide additional restorative services. The ADHA is in the process of finalizing the curriculum development for an "Advance Dental Hygiene Practitioner". The U.S. Budget was ratified by the President this year with language that HRSA pursue this practitioner development.

Do you feel that is important to be passionate about the field of dental hygiene in order to be successful?

I believe that success is being passionate about anything you do.

What other career advice can you offer future dental hygienists?

Stay involved and on the cutting edge of emerging technology.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the field of dental hygiene that would be interesting or helpful to dental hygiene students?

Find a mentor and ask them for direction when you are unsure.

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