Helene Bednarsh, BS, RDH, MPH, is director of the HIV Dental Ombudsperson Program at the Boston Public Health Commission. She is also vice president of HIVdent, a not-for-profit coalition of concerned health care professionals committed to assuring access to high quality oral health care services for people living with HIV disease. Bednarsh was honored with the Outstanding Dental Hygiene Alumni Award from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 1998. She received the ADHA Alfred C. Fones Award recognizing outstanding achievement and dedication to the profession of dental hygiene in 2005. Her accomplishments were again recognized with the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 2007. She is also a Dimensions Editorial Advisory Board member.
What sparked your interest in public health?
My parents stressed very heavily in our household the importance of social justice and serving the public. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, which allowed me to go to college. Throughout school I tried to think of a path I could take where I could work in a health field that served the public at large and not a private client. As an undergrad in the early 1970s, I didn’t want to come out of college with just a degree, I wanted a degree that would help me find work and then help me pursue medical school or a career in public health. So I applied to Michigan’s School of Dental Hygiene and was accepted. I received my bachelor of science and certificate in dental hygiene there in 1974. During my years of dental hygiene school, I was basically a fixture in the community dentistry department. I was always trying to learn more and do something to fill the need felt by the broader public for oral health care.
I believed that my degree in dental hygiene would enable me to study public health. However, when I began applying to schools of public health, it was hard to get in as a dental hygienist because they were looking for physicians, dentists, nurses, veterinarians, etc. My favorite line when I open my lecture at the Harvard School of Public Health is, “In 1974 I wasn’t good enough to get into the Harvard School of Public Health but I am good enough to stand here and lecture to you now.” I ended up at the University of Texas School of Public Health. I knew that public health was the only career option for me.
What does your job entail as the director of the HIV Dental Ombudsperson Program?
I evolved from a part-time manager position to full-time director within a few years of writing the first grant. We’ve gone from $40,000 a year in funding to more than $700,000. The program covers all of Massachusetts and three counties in southern New Hampshire. Our goal is to facilitate access to oral health care for people with HIV. It’s really a model of dental case management where clients enroll in the program and we refer them to one of our participating dental offices. In my first year, that wasn’t easy because it coincided with the report of the possible transmission of HIV from one patient to six patients in a dental program. So recruiting providers into a program to treat patients who had HIV was tough. We had a handful of providers our first year and now we have more than 180 offices participating. We also have a mission to educate consumers, providers, and students about HIV.
For more information on the work of the HIV Dental Ombudsperson Program, visit the August 2010 issue online and read “Breaking Barriers” by Bednarsh and her colleagues.