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Diverse Voices In Dentistry: Q&A with Susan Quan

Posted September 30, 2021

Tonya Lanthier, RDH
Susan Quan, MPH, MBA, RDH

As part of our recent SmartView launch, DentalPost is elevating diverse voices and leaders in dentistry so that we can all better understand their perspectives on how to propel our industry forward by creating stronger dental teams and practices through diversity.

This week, I’m happy to share my conversation with Susan Quan, MPH, MBA, RDH, a licensed, Asian-American dental hygienist in Campbell, California, who has been practicing hygiene for 31 years. 

Tonya Lanthier (TL): Susan, thank you so much for being willing to share with us your personal experience and perspective, as well as your thoughts on this important issue facing our industry. 

Susan Quan (SQ): Thanks for having me and for creating space for this conversation. Diversity in dentistry… What a ginormous undertaking!  

TL: It is enormous, and honestly, I don’t pretend to have the answers, which is why I want to hear from leaders like you. First, I’d love to know how you were introduced to dentistry and how it became your passion and career? 

SQ: I was a first-born child that grew up on the “south side” in an immigrant family, poor, abused, and neglected by today’s standards. But that’s because my parents were working to death to feed their family. By all statistics, I should have been on the streets with no chance of making it to college. My parents had no college money for us and told me that I would have to work to pay for college. I even spent almost a year homeless during my freshman year of college, so I learned the hard side of life very early on. However, by the grace of God, I was surrounded by people that mentored me in many ways.  

In my youth, I had decay on virtually every tooth. My parents did not want to and could not spend money on healthcare. It was only after crying on the couch night after night with tooth pain that they reluctantly took me to a dentist, only to have my primary teeth all extracted prematurely. As I got older, a church family member let me hang out at his dental office. That began a conversation about getting dental care at the local dental school and led to who I am today. 

TL: Thank you for sharing that! I also had a difficult childhood and a traumatic experience with my teeth at a young age. The dental team that gave me my smile back inspired me to go into dental hygiene. Can you share a bit more about your path from being a patient to being a provider? 

As a dental school patient, I developed a friendship with my dental hygiene student, and I looked up to her immensely.  Before I knew it, I wanted to be her! But since I had no chance for college, she encouraged me to continue studying hard. Luckily, academics came very easily for me. By my high school graduation, I was awarded the Oral B Institute for Oral Health full scholarship to dental hygiene school. My path was only made possible because I had people mentoring me every step of the way, people developing a thirst for learning, people sparking my curiosity. We need to start young, cultivate interest and curiosity, and invest in mentorship. 

TL: What challenges, opportunities, and steps (big or small) do you think we can take to attract more diverse candidates to the dental schools and the dental industry? 

SQ: The challenge is that the dental profession is so segmented because it is largely a small business industry with little opportunity for mentorship. Therein lies my challenge for our industry: developing large-scale opportunities to engage the young with meaningful programs in target populations. I have learned over the years that there are tremendous resources out there, but not nearly optimized for this goal. As a person with eternal optimism, I feel it is certainly possible but just needs the leadership and guidance.

TL: I love that challenge idea! And I appreciate so much that you’re an eternal optimist. I am too, which is why it makes me sad that we have so much negativity in the field right now. Who do you think in our industry would have the most success starting a mentorship program in more diverse communities? 

We could have an entire day’s workshop on this question!  I love it!  The negativity in our industry is an entire workshop on its own, and we can tackle that another time. Regarding mentorship, I see an abundance of opportunities here, but there has to first be a commitment to cultivating diversity in the first place. 

I have a few ideas that I’d love to explore more with other dental leaders. Since I am the very product of a dental hygiene student’s mentorship, I think that dental hygiene programs have an amazing opportunity to have outreach to diverse populations. I would also love to see local and district chapters of dental hygiene and dental societies build outreach and mentorship into their charters. At the collegiate level, there are career fairs in which potential employers converge on campuses to interview potential candidates for employment. 

TL: I agree. It’s why, with nearly 1 million dental professionals as a part of DentalPost, I felt a responsibility to use our platform to bring more education and awareness to this issue. The first step is to get people talking about the things we can do to create change. In that spirit,  where would you start the conversation? 

SQ: So, I want to share with you my (somewhat unconventional) position on diversity. It has been a long-held position in many industries but can also – and especially – be applied in dentistry.  

I strongly feel that the lack of diversity is a prolific problem deeply rooted in access and opportunity.  All too many times, achieving diversity within organizations means affirmative action and quotas. It is a much quicker fix than addressing the root causes. And like all large-scale problems, the perceived problem is just end-stage. It’s like a dental patient telling us they have a loose tooth. Think of all the complex biochemistry and microbiology events that led to that loose tooth. Similarly, telling a diabetic patient that they have gum disease because of bacteria is very short-sighted. Like most public health and social issues, they are often complex, deep-seated, and rooted in broader problems!

Since (lack of) diversity is often tied into lack of minority representation, and lack of minority representation is often rooted in poverty, lack of access, lack of opportunity. With strategic, coordinated, worthwhile investment in programs, we could cultivate access to education, passion, interest, mentorship, etc., in target populations that will grow the next generation of clinicians. I feel this approach can be applied to every discipline. At the end of the day, if we raise intellectual equity for all groups, we will ALL grow together and shepherd in a new generation of competency.

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