By Sean Parrish
Dai Chinh Phan is a staff maxillofacial prosthodontist at the Albuquerque Veterans Administration Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Phan has a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Wichita State University, as well as a DDS from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a MS in Prosthodontics from Marquette University.
When not assisting patients with the challenges of dental restoration or creating compositions on the piano, Dr. Phan volunteers his time as a valuable contributor to SDN’s Mentor Forum.
In a recent interview, Dr. Phan spoke at length about dentistry, the scope of prosthodontics, and his own unique story of emigrating from Vietnam.
Please tell us a little about your background.
My parents, my older brother, and I escaped from Vietnam in 1978 on a cramped fishing boat, a few years after the war had ended. Having spent a year and a half in a makeshift Indonesian refugee camp, the whole family was sponsored by a church in Portland, Oregon and flown to America in 1980. I started my education in America as a 7th grader where I learned to assimilate into a new country and culture.
What was your path to your job as a prosthodontist?
Once I finished high school, I entered Wichita State University in the summer of 1985 as a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, I was accepted to the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Dentistry, and I obtained my dental degree in 1995. My post-graduate education included the General Practice Residency and Advanced Education in General Dentistry, followed by a prosthodontics residency, at Marquette University. After graduate school, I went to New York to complete a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in maxillofacial prosthetics. Having completed my studies in 2001, I served as an assistant professor in prosthodontics at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Dentistry. At this time, I am a staff maxillofacial prosthodontist at the Albuquerque Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Do you feel that there is a specific experience from your past that had a major influence on who you are today?
I am very grateful of what I have, and I take nothing for granted. My parents worked hard to bring me to America—the cost of achieving the American dream is not cheap. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people like us lost their lives in the open sea in search of freedom. Being blessed with what I have become, I try to make myself a productive citizen and give back to society by helping others in need. Anything less would be a complete waste on my parents’ efforts.
Did anyone inspire you in your career choices?
My father was a physician. Because his office was in our house, I used to visit him after his patients were dismissed. As later in life I would choose a career in dentistry, seeing him helping others surely inspired me to be a health care provider. My parents had told me, since the day I was born, that education in life is the utmost priority. “Go as far as you can in whatever career you want to pursue,” they would always say. So, I just kept going to school and before I knew it, 16 years have passed since my first day of college.
What strengths do you have that have allowed you to be successful?
In life, there are always obstacles. You need to keep your head up, even in your darkest moments. My father passed away of lung cancer during my final year of residency. I recall how difficult it was to continue my studies so I could graduate. Yet, I was able to make it through with the support of my family, friends, and colleagues. I believe that in the worst of times, people will discover their inner strength and a resiliency they never thought existed.
What are your interests outside your career?
One of my life’s passions is to compose music which I play on the piano for others to enjoy. Music has a special place in my heart, and I love to share this “love of my life” with others. I also enjoy cooking my own concoctions. Good food shared with good friends: what more can a person ask for?
You began with a degree in engineering, yet you became a dentist. What prompted such a drastic change in careers?
I was in engineering graduate school when I decided to make a career change. In the early 90’s, the aerospace industry in America was not very strong. At that time, it was rather tough to get a good-paying job as an aerospace engineer. I knew then that a career in the health care profession would be an excellent choice for me. My father suggested dentistry, so I decided to look further into it. I thought since there was already a physician (my father) and an engineer (my older brother) in the family, a dentist would be a logical choice. It was the best decision of my life. The rest is history.
How would you describe your practice setting?
I work for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It has been a privilege for me to serve the veterans who give us the freedom we are all enjoying today. My patient population comes from all over the state. Some travel hundreds of miles to see me for dental needs that can’t be rendered from their local community dentists.
Where did you see yourself practicing when you started dental school? Did you find that your ambitions changed over time?
When I started dental school, I always dreamed of having my own office and making big money. However, as time went on, I found that I enjoyed academics and helping others learn. After finishing up my residencies, I began my professional career as an assistant professor in prosthodontics at the University of Tennessee at Memphis. Although I stayed there for only two years, I consider that period to be one of the highlights of my life. I love teaching and the job was very rewarding and enjoyable for me. Now I find that helping the veterans who have served our country is rewarding enough that it will be a long while, if at all, that I would consider starting my own practice.
Can you explain what a maxillofacial prosthodontist is and what they do?
A prosthodontist is a dental specialist who has undergone post-graduate training to become skilled in handling difficult dental restorative cases. A maxillofacial prosthodontist is a prosthodontist who has completed an additional fellowship to allow him/her to provide prosthetic reconstruction in the maxillofacial region. A typical patient referred to a maxillofacial prosthodontist is one who has lost part of the face or jaw due to cancer surgery or trauma and is in need of prosthetic reconstruction.
What motivated you to specialize in prosthodontics after dental school, and from there, to further specialize in maxillofacial prosthodontics?
During my last two years of dental school, I enjoyed working on the more complex restorative cases. It always feels good to see a patient so happy with the end results. For example, the first time I was able to restore a dentition that was almost in ruins at the initial presentation—it was gratifying. It made me feel accomplished to know that I had made such an impact on a person’s life. When looking at maxillofacial prosthodontics, I knew that an even bigger impact could be made by providing prosthetic reconstruction, not only limited to the oral cavity but other parts of the maxillofacial area as well. When I am making a prosthetic nose, eye, ear, or a speech appliance, it is a combination of art, science, and medicine, all in one package. To see a patient being able to talk or look presentable again after their treatment has been completed—it is an incredible experience for me.
What kind of training would be required for someone to pursue this as a specialty?
Maxillofacial prosthodontics is a sub-specialty of prosthodontics, one of 9 dental specialties. A maxillofacial prosthodontist must complete a residency in prosthodontics, followed by a fellowship in maxillofacial prosthodontics.
What trait or special skills would you describe as being important for someone considering your specialty?
For one who might consider this exciting field, they should have excellent clinical skills, attention to detail, enjoy difficult or unique restorative cases, possess patience, and above all, have a lot of compassion.
How does the pay within your specialty compare for others within dentistry? Would you say it is in the top 1/3, middle 1/3 or lower 1/3?
According to the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Employment and Wages, Annual Averages 2004, prosthodontist salary is the sixth highest income of all careers in the US.
I am curious about the kind of lifestyle one might expect from practicing in your specialty—what kind of hours does it require of you, and how busy is your specialty?
If you practice in a major head and neck cancer medical center, you would be very busy. A maxillofacial prosthodontist not only delivers prosthetic care for patients with maxillofacial defects, but they also engage in dental examinations, addressing any dental needs prior, during, and after cancer therapy, as well as providing treatments in the operating room. While I was a fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, there were times when I was so busy that there wasn’t even time for a lunch break! However, knowing that you are delivering care to a patient in need makes the job fun and extremely rewarding.
What’s the most important or even rewarding thing that you feel you have done in your career?
I served as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Memphis after I completed my fellowship. I still remember my first lecture as a professor in front of 80 students. It was on September 11th, 2001, and I still recall the topic of that lecture. It is the day that I will never forget.
We often expect in interviews to hear only about the positives of a specialty, but I am also curious about whether there is a flip-side to that question. Are there downsides to your profession? If so, what are they?
In this field, I deal with patients that have head and neck cancer. In most instances, I follow these patients for long periods of times, ranging from weeks or months to even years. Over time, a provider can become very attached. Unfortunately, there are times when the disease claims the lives of these patients. I have lost patients while they were under treatment, and I can tell you truthfully, it hurts and hurts deeply. Loosing someone that you care for and had a special bond with is not something that can be forgotten very easily.
Because I am interested in your opinion as a practitioner, what do you think prospective students ought to look for in a dental school?
No doubt dental education is a very expensive but still worthwhile investment. That being said, I strongly suggest prospective students choose a school that affords them low tuition, as well as living somewhere with a lower cost of living. While some students are preoccupied with Ivy League schools, just about any dental institution will graduate you as a competent provider. Becoming an excellent clinician is about how much you are willing to learn and about how much effort you are willing to put in.
If you had the opportunity to speak to your younger self when first starting out, what kind of advice might you offer?
Luckily, I was a pretty “good” kid when it comes to schooling, so I didn’t get into any unfortunate predicaments while I was in college! But for prospective college-bound students thinking about dentistry, my advice is this: set your mind to it, plan ahead, work hard, then sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Getting a good education is the key to life’s success. Once you have that diploma in your hands, no one can take that from you.
What issues do you see as particularly important in dentistry at the moment? Where do you stand on those issues?
Drug users, especially users of methamphetamine, can totally destroy their oral cavity in such a short time. The effect of the drug on the tooth structure is simply devastating. More and more dentists are encountering this condition, the so called “meth mouth.” I think there is a need to inform and educate health care providers in all disciplines about how to recognize and treat this increasingly widespread problem, a problem that is costing many young patients their teeth. I also think that there is a need for the public to be more aware of oral cancer. Though not as common as other types, oral cancer can be debilitating to a person’s speech or ability to eat when not properly diagnosed. We should educate all practitioners on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of oral cancer and push the need for regular oral cancer screening.
Do you see any changes or movements happening within dentistry in the near future?
We are living in a society that places an emphasis on physical beauty. With advances in dental implants and restorative materials, I think there will be a big market for cosmetic dentistry in the future. Dentistry is shifting from the classic image of the painful toothache and sadistic extraction to a more cosmetic approach. I think a great time for dentistry is ahead of us.