Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: Q&A with Dr. Mina Kim

New dentist discusses journey, mentors for Asian American and Pacific Heritage Month

Photo of Dr. Kim and her family

Influence: Dr. Mina Kim, left, pose for a photo with her family, including her uncle, Dr. Syngcuk Kim, and her father, Dr. Syngbum Kim, both of whom mentored her in her journey to dentistry. Photo provided by Dr. Mina Kim.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which recognizes the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans in the U.S.

According to the ADA Health Policy Institute, the dentist workforce continues to see an increase in racial diversity—led by Asians, who make up 18% of the dentist workforce in 2020, up from 11.8% in 2005.

The New Dentist News spoke with several prominent Asian-American new dentists to discuss their journey in the profession, the importance of mentors and what advice they would give to the next generation of AAPI dentists

Mina Kim, D.D.S., of New York City
Dr. Kim is the president-elect of New York County Dental Society, co-founded the Woman to Woman Dentists Network and a recipient of the 2020 ADA 10 Under 10 Awards.

NDN: What influenced your decision to go into dentistry? Any Asian-American mentors along the way?
Dr. Kim: After a stint in the corporate world, I wanted to work with people on a more individual level. My father and uncle are both dentists, so I was able to explore the dental profession.
My father and uncle have been wonderful mentors. They have given me so much clinical guidance. I also have other mentors who have helped my professional growth. However, we all have different struggles and strengths.
NDN: What does it mean for you to be an Asian-American and working in this field?
Dr. Kim: As a dental student and a new dentist, I saw very few Asian-American alumni or leaders, so I never considered having an Asian-American female dentist mentor as a possibility. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet more Asian-American leaders. When I speak to dental students, the Asian-American ones often seek me out afterwards and ask for advice. They feel like they can relate to my experience more.

To put my patients at ease, I often talk to them about food and love to compare notes on restaurants. Since I am Korean-American, my patients often ask and trust my recommendations for Korean restaurants and other Asian cuisine.
I also speak Korean fairly well, so it helps put my Korean-speaking patients at ease and build rapport.
NDN: As a female AAPI dentist, what adversity have you faced in the profession, if any? And how did you navigate it?
Dr. Kim: With the increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, I have thought a lot about my identity as an Asian-American. As an adult, I have not experienced outright racism too much, but have experienced mainly examples of unconscious bias and microaggressions.
As a female dentist, we are often not treated with the same respect as our male colleagues. As an AAPI female dentist, I feel this is amplified. I need to speak twice as loud to be heard.
In professional settings, other dentists and faculty will often mix up my name with the one other Asian female in the group. I have been confused with colleagues who are 10 years older/younger than me and much taller on countless occasions. It is like confusing Bon Jovi for Billy Joel. I make a point to assert myself and do not allow myself to be dismissed.
Dental salespeople often address me by my first name, while my male colleagues are always doctor, even if I am more senior. This happens often to my female, non-Asian colleagues as well. I have had salespeople ignore me and be disrespectful. In one case, the salesman’s behavior was so egregious, that I brought it up to his manager who dismissed my concerns. They thought I would not push back, so I leveraged my contacts to have my concerns brought directly to the CEO of the company.
Regarding patient care, I have had patients feel they can push me towards compromised treatment or discounted fees. They are often surprised when I am firm. Although some choose to seek care elsewhere, I find that most are more compliant afterwards. Since I come from a place where I want them to have the best clinical result, they know I care about them.
NDN: What do you think the future holds for AAPI dentists, and other dentists of color? Why is it important to have a diverse and inclusive profession?
Dr. Kim: Asian-Americans are the largest growing group and represent about 8% of the U.S. population. There are many cultural differences between patients from different Asian countries. They are not only from east Asian countries like China, Japan or Korea. In order to best treat our patients, we need to increase our cultural competency.
Connecting with our patients is important so they feel comfortable. Being from a similar background can help. We need dentists of color, of different religions, sexual identity and ages. This way we can help shape healthcare policies and guidelines in order to best treat our patients.
NDN: What advice would you give to the next generation of AAPI dentists?
Dr. Kim: Currently, Asian-Americans make up almost 20% of dentists in the U.S., but I still see very few in the upper echelons of leadership in organized dentistry, academia and the corporate world.
We are the invisible minority. I have yet to see a social media post about the first Asian-American dentist. When statistics in health are published, we are often not included. I have never seen an Asian-American salesperson in the dental world, unless the company is Asian-owned.
Please be involved and make your voices heard. We need to speak up to ensure our profession’s leadership is more representative of us.
NDN: Lastly, how are you going to (or did) celebrate AAPI Heritage Month this May?
Dr. Kim: I have been featuring some of my fellow AAPI colleagues on my social media. I also love food, so I have made a point to eat a lot of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Indian food this month. At New York County Dental Society, I am having dinner with some members in Koreatown this month.