Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series that celebrates the diversity of career paths in dentistry and the Association’s efforts in supporting dentists’ career choices in the profession.
Huong Le, D.D.S., was in the process of buying a pediatric practice when she reached a fork in the road in her career path.
With her husband serving as a physician in the U.S. Air Force, the possibility of being reassigned caused her to second guess becoming a practice owner.
At around the same time, Dr. Le had decided to help a community clinic in Olivehurst, California, by working there one day a week.
“That was about 33 years ago,” Dr. Le said. “Once I started at the community clinic, I felt that commitment to the community, and the rest is history.”
Suddenly, she found herself leaving her hospital job to become a staff dentist, and later the dental director, at the community clinic, where she stayed for 14 years. And in the last 19 years, Dr. Le has served as chief dental officer of Asian Health Services in Oakland, California, overseeing six dental sites that serve low-income and uninsured Bay Area residents.
Dr. Le is among the 3% of the dental workforce, or about 6,000 dentists, who primarily practice in dental safety net settings, which include health centers, community clinics, health departments, government programs and federal dental services. Others who primarily address the public health from the community perspective are educators at dental and public health schools, researchers, administrators, advocates and policymakers. About 800 of these dentists have advanced training in public health dentistry. In addition, there are about 215 dentists who are board certified in dental public health, according to the American Board of Public Health. A common theme for all public health dentists is a commitment to address the oral health of a community.
“We’re one of the smallest dental specialties but make the greatest impact,” said Myron Allukian Jr., D.D.S., whose career included stints as being the city of Boston’s dental director, becoming a leading advocate of community water fluoridation, initiating programs for the underserved, homeless and persons with HIV/AIDS, and serving as president of the American Public Health Association, American Association of Community Dental Programs, American Association of Public Health Dentistry and the American Board of Dental Public Health. He also teaches at the three dental schools in Boston, Harvard, Tufts and Boston University.
Dr. Allukian, who today is often called “The Social Conscience of Dentistry,” illustrates the importance of public health dentists with a simple allegory.
“Imagine a wide river flowing through a city, and the only way to cross it is to swim,” he said. “As people cross, many drown.”
This imaginary city, he continued, hires more and more lifeguards. But soon that becomes too expensive and unsustainable.
“It’s the public health professionals who study why people are drowning (epidemiology) and find ways to solve the problem (policies/programs),” he said. “They’ll determine the best places to build bridges. They’ll determine who needs swimming lessons. That’s what we do as public health dentists. We collect data, assess the oral health needs and resources of communities, and address those needs with policies and programs, then evaluate them to make sure they work.”