Public Health for the RDH: Past, Present and Future

Karen Omniewski RDH, PHDHP, MS, a long standing member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), tells us the story of how she began her career as a clinical Dental Hygienist over forty years ago. As of November 23, 2018, AmeriHealth Caritas PA has recognized Karen as the first Public Health Dental Hygiene Practitioner (PHDHP) in Pennsylvania to become a credentialed Medicaid provider as she works in the “Growing Smiles of Erie County” dental program at the Erie County Department of Health (ECDH). Karen graciously commends a fellow ADHA member, Shannon Kleckner, for developing and implementing the program, as it opened a door for Karen to address the lack of access to oral health care for the uninsured and the underinsured.

However, she’s not done yet. As Karen follows her heart, she continues to advance the career of Dental Hygiene by starting a 4-year teledentistry partnership with Head Start in Erie. Thanks to generous grants from the PA Department of Health and the Hamot Health Foundation, the teledentistry partnership will give Karen and a Dentist in Erie the chance to reach out to children, to provide exams, prophylaxes and fluoride treatments.

Although, this did not all happen overnight. Here is what Karen had tosay about her journey thus far. “For the first 38 years of my dental hygiene profession, I had the privilege of working for a periodontist who shared my passion for providing our patients with quality care with little regard for time limitations or financial gain. There was not a day I did not love being a dental hygienist, but I became complacent about keeping up with current trends and advancements in the profession; although, I loved my boss’s drive for research in his own field. The continuing education (CEU) requirements became monotonous. Then, thanks to the PDHA, amazing things began to happen, dental hygienists finally were able to deliver local anesthesia. This was a periodontal dental hygienist’s dream, and at the same time, the idea of becoming a Public Health Dental Hygiene Practitioner was introduced to me. Suddenly, new and exciting changes were happening! I joined the ADHA, went back for a Master’s Degree in Applied Intelligence, became an Academy member, and began to love to learn again!

I took a part time job at LECOM dental school while continuing to work at the periodontal office, and enjoyed co-presenting Healthy Teeth/Healthy Children programs to pediatric and family practitioners in the LECOM network, and Age One Connect the Dots to LECOM medical and pharmacy students. The integration of medical/dental was intriguing, and the lack of knowledge of the oral cavity and its connection to overall health became alarmingly evident. Then, the opportunity to Chair the Dental Hygiene Program at Fortis- Erie opened. Despite my love for the students and faculty, I realized my passion is patient care.

I would advise every new or established hygienist to join ADHA. I told my students upon graduation from Fortis, not to become complacent as I did, to stay involved, to keep learning, as knowledge is essential to growth. Our profession is continually changing. I know, despite the annual fee, you will get a return on investment in reduction in CEU class costs, online course availability, and the online magazine. What keeps me coming back is the need for a strong unified support system to keep the advancement of our profession going forward. In the last 10 to 15 years, thanks to the drive of a few passionate driven hygienists, there are exponentially more opportunities in our field in comparison to when I began in the late 70s. The future looks bright for our profession; especially in public health, where the need far outweighs the availability of well-qualified and willing practitioners.”

We, at the Pennsylvania Dental Hygienists’ Association (PDHA), celebrate Karen’s success and follow her lead to open doors and share our power to heal through education and clinical care.