Christine M. Farrell, RDH, BSDH, MPA, is the oral health director for the Michigan Department of Community Health’s (MDCH) Oral Health Program. She has been with MDCH for more than 24 years. Appointed oral health director in 2010, Farrell previously worked in the Medicaid policy area of MDCH. She has a wealth of oral health knowledge at both the state and federal levels, and extensive experience advising MDCH’s public health staff and local public health partners on a vast array of program, financial, and administrative issues related to oral health. Farrell is also an adjunct clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in Ann Arbor.
Active in dental hygiene organizations, Farrell has been a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and Michigan Dental Hygienists’ Association (MDHA) for nearly 30 years. She received the MDHA Central District Outstanding Dental Hygienist of the Year Award in 1998 and again in 2011. In 2007, Farrell had the honor of speaking to the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce about improving access to dental care for children.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your professional journey in public health, and how did you overcome them?
Although I had earned a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, many people only saw the dental hygiene credentials after my name and assumed all I knew was teeth and the oral cavity. I had to demonstrate that my degree provided a broad background in health that enabled me to work easily with other disciplines. I did return to school to earn a master’s degree in public administration, which gave me a solid foundation in public policy.
One of the most significant challenges I have faced is the lack of employment opportunities within the field of public health in Michigan. I was excited about the opening of the director of oral health position at MDCH nearly 3 years ago, but this presented its own challenges. I was not considered because although I had earned a master’s degree, graduating in 2006, I did not have at least 5 years of post-graduate experience. I had to demonstrate that my previous experience in public health was pertinent and that my extracurricular work on projects with Head Start, the Michigan Public Health Association’s (MPHA) Oral Health Section, and local dental hygiene components, etc, was all related to public health. The human resources department finally approved my experience and I was offered the position.
What inspired you to work in public health?
While I worked in a variety of clinical practices, the ones I found most fulfilling were the clinics that treated the uninsured and people covered by Medicaid and patients with developmental disabilities. I tried to make a difference and affect individual behavior change. I found that I really wanted something more than private practice. There were changes in my personal life that also led me to search out a different position where I could use my dental health knowledge as opposed to my clinical skills. I found that I enjoy the macrolevel of implementing policy and system changes much more than individual practice. Also, I have always maintained my membership in professional organizations, such as ADHA and MPHA. These organizations helped me envision a career in public health and provided valuable experience that enabled me to hone my networking skills.
Before going into public health, I did consider pharmacy school, but I am so glad I chose this career path because this is a particularly exciting time for public health and dental hygiene. As implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act begins, there are many opportunities for systems change and integration. The profession of dental hygiene must stay current and be part of the solution. I have always considered dental hygiene a career, not just a job. It has allowed me to travel many different roads. I have made so many personal connections over the years through the profession. I have a close group of friends that I met through my experience working in organized dental hygiene who are absolutely invaluable to me. We support each other and share our successes and challenges.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
I have enjoyed serving the state of Michigan in the Department of Community Health for more than 24 years. The past 2 years have been especially fulfilling in my role as state oral health director. While I liked working in the Medicaid department, it is a very prescriptive program with strict regulations. The oral health program represents a change of pace because it allows more creativity in developing and planning strategies to meet the needs of people and/or organizations. I am able to collaborate with a variety of special interest groups and other organizations. And because I coordinate multiple programs, it really puts my project management skills to the test. I also manage staff members who collaborate with other departments to incorporate oral health into their programs. In addition, I enjoy working with municipalities and water system engineers to support efforts to widen community water fluoridation.
In addition to your position as a policy specialist with the Michigan Department of Community Health, you worked as a pharmacy technician between 2001 and 2004. What motivated this?
While working in the Medicaid program, I managed a number of policy areas besides the dental benefit—including pharmacy policy, in which I was involved for more than 8 years. One of my main responsibilities was overseeing the Medicaid pharmacy drug list and relational database. Working closely with the pharmacist consultant, I managed all of the newly approved drugs that were added to the database on a monthly basis. At the time, I was debating about going to graduate school, and the pharmacist consultant encouraged me to explore pharmacy. I became a pharmacy technician to get some hands-on experience—and enjoyed my work in this area. As it turns out, I used a lot of my dental hygiene knowledge and skills, and wound up answering all kinds of oral health inquiries. But in the end, I decided to earn a master’s degree in public administration instead.