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Perth-based oral medicine specialist Dr Amanda Phoon Nguyen is a passionate advocate for her profession and her patients. She’s also an inspiring example of the positive power of giving back. By Shane Conroy
Dr Amanda Phoon Nguyen may have the biggest heart in dentistry. She may also have the busiest schedule.
Dr Phoon Nguyen is an oral medicine specialist at the Perth Oral Medicine and Dental Sleep Centre. She’s also an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and an oral medicine consultant at Perth’s Children Hospital.
And she is the vice-president of the Australian Dental Association Western Australia (ADAWA), co-chair of the Australasian Sleep Association, and on the board of directors of the Jaye Radisich Foundation.
Dr Phoon Nguyen also flies from Perth to Darwin every two months to provide much needed oral medicine assistance. And she’s part of the team behind the OralMedMate app that helps dentists diagnose oral medicine-related conditions and connects them with oral medicine specialists.
So what does Dr Phoon Nguyen do when she has a spare moment in this gruelling schedule? She dresses up as a giant bear to entertain kids at Perth’s Children’s Hospital.
“I love volunteering as the mascot at the hospital,” she says. “In my professional role, I’m often diagnosing and helping patients through oral cancer treatments. It can be very serious. So it’s fulfilling to make the kids laugh and see them smile.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen traces this tireless focus on helping others back to the early days of her arrival in Australia. She grew up in Singapore, and moved to Melbourne for senior high school and dental school.
“This was in the days that Pauline Hanson was getting popular, and I did have the feeling that I wasn’t Aussie enough,” she says. “I didn’t want anybody to tell me that I didn’t belong. I think I was looking for connection.”
This desire to connect with her new community led Dr Phoon Nguyen to the Australian Navy. She joined in the final year of dental school.
“I wanted to try something a little different, and a military career was attractive in the sense that there would be some stability and mentorship,” she says. “It was also an opportunity to serve and contribute to my community.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen’s struggles with asthma meant an overseas deployment was off the cards. So she worked as a dentist on navy bases in Australia, and developed her general dentistry skills.
“I still had to do military training, because you are always a navy officer first and a dentist second,” she says. “I had some really good mentors, and the experience gave me a very solid foundation for the rest of my career.”
While in the Navy, Dr Phoon Nguyen met her future husband. He was working on navy ships in Melbourne before returning to Perth. The couple pursued a long-distance relationship until Dr Phoon Nguyen decided to discharge from the navy in Perth.
The next year was a whirlwind. Dr Phoon Nguyen worked as a dentist in the private and public systems while she continued to manage her own health issues. She also started her own dental practice. “That was a tough time,” she says. “It was a very steep learning curve.” A negative experience with a former partnership was an added stress.
At the same time, Dr Phoon Nguyen enrolled at the Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons (RACDS) to pursue an oral medicine specialisation.
“In the middle of my post-grad studies I was having to write affidavits,” she says. “Starting my own practice was a bad experience, but it taught me that there are many other pathways to go down. You can be just as successful if you don’t own your own practice.”
That’s a message Dr Phoon Nguyen shares with many of her students at the University of Western Australia. “I think that there is some pressure that owning your own practice should be the goal. Some people thrive at it, but it’s absolutely not your only option.”
Becoming an advocate
Dr Phoon Nguyen is certainly thriving as an oral medicine specialist. But she does warn other dentists that deciding to specialise is a big career decision.
“Oral medicine was something that I always found interesting,” she says. “But that’s the thing with specialisation, you have to love it enough that it’s all you want to do for the rest of your career.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen says that with fewer than 40 oral medicine specialists currently practising throughout Australia, there is a strong need to grow the profession.
“Many of Australia’s oral medicine specialists are concentrated in Perth and Melbourne,” she says. “As far as I know, there are none in Adelaide, Hobart or Darwin. That’s why I fly to Darwin every two months. Otherwise, those patients would have to come to Perth for treatment.”
That’s also one of the reasons Dr Phoon Nguyen got involved with the OralMedMate app. It’s a free app that provides dentists with important oral medicine information and helps them identify when a patient should see an oral medicine specialist.
The app also features a function that allows the dentist to take a photo of the problem area in the patient’s mouth, and send the photo directly to a specialist. Dr Phoon Nguyen says dentists can also use this feature to track changes in the patient’s mouth.
“If you find something in the mouth that you’re not sure about, take a photo in the app, bring the patient back in a couple of weeks,” she suggests. “This allows you to look back at the photo and compare what it looked like before. Most things in the mouth should heal within about two weeks. If it’s longer than that, it should be checked out.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen is not only a passionate advocate for oral medicine. She also works hard to build awareness about the effects of head and neck cancer treatment on oral health.
“Cancer patients often get mucositis as well, which is very painful, and patients who receive head and neck radiation are at higher risk of tooth decay due to decreased saliva,” she explains. “I’ve had patients say to me that the worst part of their cancer experience was losing their teeth.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen received a Wrigley Company Foundation ADHF Community Service Grant to help address that issue.
“The year-long grant enabled us to provide information and oral hygiene products to patients who were currently undergoing oral cancer treatment,” she says. “We were able to give patients a surgical toothbrush, a high-fluoride toothpaste, and other oral hygiene products.”
Dr Phoon Nguyen has been well recognised for her significant contributions to oral medicine. She has been awarded Fellowship of the Pierre Fauchard Academy, Fellowship of the International College of Dentists, and Fellowship of the Academy of Dentistry International for services to the profession.
But it’s the satisfaction of making a difference in her community that keeps Dr Phoon Nguyen going. “I would recommend volunteering to all dentists,” she says. “There are so many benefits. It makes you feel good, and it gives dentists a way to connect with their colleagues. And we can all use a little extra connection.”