Speaking Out: One Oral Surgeon Using Her Voice for Good

The phrase, “I don’t know how she does it!” could easily sum up Yuan (Cathy) Hung, D.D.S, Dip. ABOMS. The surgeon, business owner, published author, speaker, accomplished pianist and mother of two makes it look easy, but she would tell you that “easy” didn’t get her where she is today. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Dr. Hung’s journey is not unlike other immigrants’—paved with hard work, visa limitations and a fair share of prejudice—but her path from psychology student at UC Berkeley to oral surgeon was even more strenuous due to the simple fact that she is a woman.

Only 34 percent of practicing dentists in the US are women,* and when it comes to specialties, there are even fewer; just 19 percent of oral surgeons in the US are women. While attending dental school at Columbia University, a friend suggested Dr. Hung would be good at oral surgery and she was matched with a residency program in the Bronx at a Level I trauma center. However, just as Dr. Hung was encouraged to pursue surgery on the advice of a friend, so many other women are told to stay away. “Just the other day, a friend told me ‘I almost became an oral surgeon but was told I wouldn’t do well because I was a woman. I was told I was just a pretty face’,” she said.

“Whether you’re an immigrant, a minority, a different race or a woman you’ll be treated a certain way. A lot of times, we worry about consequences and don’t speak out.” As a minority woman on a visa during residency, Dr. Hung worried she’d be kicked out of her program and sent home if she spoke up. When she finally did take the brave step of reporting a male colleague for sexual harassment, the hospital let the harasser off the hook. “Twenty years later, I feel like I’m in a better position to speak up because I’m not under anyone right now, I work for myself,” Dr. Hung said.

Dr. Hung's interests lie in dentoalveolar surgery in the private practice setting and she opened her own office in 2009: “I enjoy wisdom teeth; I enjoy doing sedation.” After building her practice from scratch and balancing work and motherhood, Dr. Hung took the natural next step: Published author. Her father had joined her in America, only to be diagnosed with cancer. Like most women, the role of caregiver fell to Dr. Hung. While managing her father’s care, she was struck by how difficult it was to navigate the complicated US health system in addition to cultural and language barriers. “I was thinking to myself: He’s educated, I’m educated and am able to translate for him most of the time…what happens to other families who don’t have these resources?” That’s what inspired “Pulling Wisdom: Filling the Gaps in Cross-Cultural Communications for Healthcare Professionals.” The book, used as a reference textbook for dental hygiene students, helps oral healthcare professionals interact with patients across cultures.  

Today, Dr. Hung is seeing a gradual cultural change in oral surgery that makes her hopeful there will be more women in the profession. But it isn’t happening among her generation of surgeons—it’s happening at the educational level. Dr. Hung cites more “female-friendly” residency programs led by female program directors. These programs attract more women by supporting them in both their career goals and personal lives, encouraging them to start families and even offering maternity leave. Dr. Hung had been only the second woman to finish her residency program, and at the time she had been warned against starting a family.

To fuel that cultural shift even more, Dr. Hung is working towards releasing her second book “Behind the Scalpel: Practical Guide and Stories by Women Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.” The book offers guidance and resources for dental students considering pursuing oral surgery, as well as inspirational stories from the women who have gone before them. “I hope by putting this book together we’re showing a lot of success stories. There are a lot of personal stories from very successful women surgeons who have advanced fellowship training, multiple degrees, to inspire more females to think: ‘I can see myself doing this’,” she said. Dr. Hung hopes the book, which she sees as more inspirational and encouraging than a dry textbook, will become as valuable as the Scut Monkey handbook given to surgery interns.

To women who have already started on the path towards becoming an oral surgeon, Dr. Hung has the following advice: Planning is everything. “If more women know what to expect early on, they can prepare so much better.” Dr. Hung didn’t decide to go into oral surgery until her third year of dental school, but she feels if more women were encouraged from freshman year to pursue oral surgery, they’d have more success balancing their training, future careers and personal lives.

It’s safe to say that Dr. Hung has found that balance between her family life, career and her many other pursuits outside dentistry. Yet even to this day she still faces discrimination in the dental field, not because people doubt her skill as surgeon but because of her gender. Dr. Hung recalls how she was trying to get more details on a piece of dental technology from a sales rep. The rep had taken the liberty of entering the specifications for the order on her behalf, without Dr. Hung’s input. When she pushed back and asked for clarification on some of the features, the rep insisted she ask her husband’s permission before he would go into more detail with her. Dr. Hung has similar experiences on the trade show floor, with the male doctors receiving more attention from manufacturers. “Overall, the industry needs to be retrained on understanding that dentistry is a little more female than male now. Don’t just assume: ‘This is a man; he must be the doctor. This is a woman; she must be the assistant or office manager’,” she said.

So, even after hearing the story of how she did it, it’s still safe to say: “I don’t know how she does it!” Dr. Hung experienced young motherhood while taking her oral surgery boards. She opened her own practice while managing her father’s cancer treatment. She wrote two books and lectures about diversity and gender in oral surgery yet is still talked down to by sales rep on the trade show floor… Dr. Hung will tell you that while a lot has changed and many things have become easier for women in oral surgery, there’s obviously still work to be done. But she knows that she’s making a difference: “Other women see me, and they feel like there’s hope. They message me and say: ‘It’s great to see a surgeon out there who’s female and Asian’.”

*American Dental Association. Workforce. American Dental Association website. https://www.ada.org/en/science-research/health-policy-institute/dental-statistics/workforce. Accessed Feb. 8, 2021.

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Amanda Gong Carestream Dental
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