Balancing practice and academic

As Singapore’s first dental clinician to receive the National Medical Research Council’s Clinician Scientist Award – Investigator Category, Dr Yu Na is no stranger to further research in dentistry. Dental Asia spoke with the senior dental surgeon and clinician-scientist at National Dental Centre Singapore, on her experience and expertise on the trends and advancements that will lead the industry in the coming years.

Can you share with us your beginnings as a dental professional, and what are your early influences in pursuing a career in this field?

Dr Yu Na: When I was young, I remember going through braces and being curious about the mechanisms. I also remember trying to adjust the wires myself and being fascinated by the devices and instruments every time I went to the dentist. During high school, I chose to major in biology, and this eventually led me to dentistry.

What are the reasons behind your decision to specialise in prosthodontics, and what inspired you to pursue your PhD studies focusing on cell-based strategies to regenerate periodontal tissues?

Dr Yu: Each dental specialty has its attraction. Since my time as a young dentist, I have always felt a sense of satisfaction from seeing the smiles on my patients after their prosthodontic treatment. To me, that was the deciding factor for choosing prosthodontics. In prosthodontics, I enjoy the precise control in operative dentistry, the process of creating a device, and the delivery of an end product that we pass to our patients.

I was looking for more fundamental biology topics to deepen my dental knowledge for my PhD studies. I was able to build my foundation in critical thinking and learnt the mental framework in scientific investigation. My research training also taught me to assess a clinical problem from scientific perspectives and seek solutions using an evidence-based approach. Regenerative periodontology is one of the most challenging domains in dentistry while cell therapy, tissue engineering and biomaterials are in the fields of cutting-edge science and help further shape my mindset of scientific thinking.

How will you describe your typical day in the workplace as you juggle between clinical and academic commitments?

Dr Yu: I take on various roles as a scientist, clinician, and manager on a typical day. I start my mornings with academic work which includes replying to emails, panel reviews, reports and drafting of papers. This is followed by project-related meetings where I review our projects, brainstorm, and gather progress updates with engineers and scientists. Over lunch, we are on Zoom calls with the clinical team. I start my clinics after lunch and attend to about five patients till evening. Thereafter, I will meet with a clinical educator on structuring a conference lecture.

My day is packed, but each role is a conduit to the other. I see myself as a bridge between clinical problems, technical solutions, and using that to educate others. I also find it a privilege to be able to switch between my roles between a researcher and clinician.

Can you briefly discuss your research proposal on clinically integrated smart digital workflow to improve the quality and efficiency in the production of removable partial dentures (RPD) for Singapore’s ageing population? In particular, what were the motivations behind this study, and what are the potential long-term implications?

Dr Yu: Working with a team of dental laboratory technicians, I witness the challenges of manual fabrication and the dependency of skilled workmanship to produce a well-fabricated prosthetic. With the ageing population in Singapore, there is a need for radical solutions in dentistry. I saw a window of opportunity to innovate through digitalisation and I hope to leverage my position as a clinician-scientist to build an ecosystem in digital dentistry. It was with all these in mind that I initiated the digital solution with automatic design software and 3D printing for the mass manufacturing of RPDs. 

What other opportunities do you see in extending your work in this research, and what advice will you like to give to dental researchers to inspire them to push their interest in oral science?

Dr Yu: Digital dentistry is disrupting conventional dental practice with its role in diagnosis and treatment planning, treatment, laboratory aid, patient motivation, practice management, training and research. There are numerous benefits to digital dental solutions, which include higher efficiency of cost and time, flexible workflow, improved accuracy, higher predictability of outcomes, fewer visits to the dentist, early detection of dental diseases, shorter recovery time, better quality images and reduced exposure to x-rays. To me, these long-term benefits outweigh the initial high capital costs and investment involved.

Can you provide us with an outlook on digital technology in prosthodontics – what can be its limitations when it comes to providing dental care to patients, and how are you overcoming this challenge? More crucially, what advice will you give to fellow practitioners who are hesitant to adopt digital technology?

Dr Yu: In recent years, we have seen an increase in the demand for dental procedures. With digital technology, we are better equipped to provide solutions for dental care, and we can improve our patient experience and enhance our dental workflow.  The adoption of technology will also drive the dentistry industry forward. However, the expense and special training that comes with the solutions often result in dentists being reluctant to adopt such new technologies.

Digitalisation will be the trend for future dentistry, I would encourage fellow practitioners to upskill their digital knowledge to prepare for the new service model.

What other trends do you foresee happening in the dental field in the next five to 10 years, and how can dental professionals prepare themselves better as the world embarks on its recovery road from the pandemic?

Dr Yu: The trend of digital transformation in dentistry is evident in the past few years. Digital dental solutions provide better comfort and experience during dental visits. They save time for both the patient and the dentist.

These solutions help dental professionals manage their practice more efficiently by streamlining the workflow. As these solutions can potentially increase the profitability of dental practice, the adoption rate is increasing. It will continue to increase in the years to come as more dental professionals realise the value these solutions have for the success of their practice.

As more and more patients start to demand better experience and more time-efficient procedures, I believe that these digital solutions will become the norm.

Published in Dental Asia March/April 2022 issue.