Selling hot dogs may not sound like the most logical starting point for a career in dentistry. But Alan Bui, DDS, who grew up helping out with his family’s hot dog truck in Washington, D.C., says he loved befriending the truck’s regular customers. Cultivating relationships that could sometimes last for years made him realize that a career in dentistry — with its close, long-lasting interpersonal relationships between doctor and patients — would be the perfect fit for him.
Dr. Bui graduated from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in 2020. We reached out to him at his office Simply Beautiful Smiles in Abington, Pennsylvania, to discuss his first few years as a dentist, his advice for others just starting out in the field and what he sees as the biggest challenge for dentistry today.
You grew up in northern Virginia and the D.C. area. Why did you decide to practice in Abington, Pennsylvania?
I went to dental school at University of Maryland. I got a position for my residency at Jefferson Abington Hospital in Pennsylvania. It’s about five minutes from where I work right now. My girlfriend and I liked it a lot, so we decided to stay and make this our new home. I love it here.
How and when did you decide to become a dentist?
I grew up in a working-class family that owned a hot dog truck in D.C. When I was selling hot dogs, I would see a lot of the same faces. I could catch up with them every day, and I really saw them throughout their lives. I knew I wanted to do something very personal. I knew I wanted to see people on a continual basis. I also loved science. Dentistry was the culmination of both those things. I can treat patients, get to know the story of their life, their family. I can see them throughout the years and really take care of them. I’m also able to apply a love of science to that. Dentistry was just the perfect fit.
Can you tell me about your work providing free dental care through Mission of Mercy events? Why do you think it’s important to give back to the community that way?
Mission of Mercy is a group of dentists who organize events that offer two days of free dental care. A bunch of people line up at 4 in the morning, and we just volunteer our time doing procedures like extractions, fillings, even root canals. We’re there pretty much the whole day, starting at 6 am and finishing maybe 6 pm.
When I was growing up, my family wasn’t exactly poor, but we didn’t have health insurance and we didn’t have the money for things like dental care. I don’t remember having regular dental visits growing up. Luckily, I had good oral hygiene, but I can imagine many people in similar or worse circumstances where they don’t have insurance and can’t afford the dental care. Having a set day where they can access free care makes a big difference in their lives.
What advice would you give to other young dentists just starting out?
Some personal advice: Be honest. Patients know when you’re being honest with them. They can see it. The stress of dentistry goes away when you’re honest with yourself and honest with your patients. Being honest makes a big difference in having a good career.
A consistent challenge for dentists that’s becoming particularly thorny at this time is staffing. Do you have any advice or insight to give other dentists on the issue?
My advice would be: Take the time to check in with your team. Just now, I was having lunch with my team, and we were talking about our days, about life. Make sure everything’s OK with them, and always ask if they have any concerns or questions.
What do you love most about being a dentist?
Talking to patients. Addressing their nerves and anxiety. For me the best feeling is when a patient comes in nervous — you can tell by the way they talk and their body language. But once you take the time to gain their trust, to be honest with them, and have all that nervousness go away, it’s a really good feeling. It’s a great thing to have as a dentist.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for dentistry today?
I’m still a relatively young dentist, but from what I’ve experienced so far, it’s finances — whether or not a patient can afford things out of pocket. When I try to tell a patient they need something for the best long-term prognosis and the best outcome, it’s usually the thing they can’t afford. The biggest challenge is financial access to care.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like physical activity. A lot of dentists can develop back problems, so I’m always at the gym or playing basketball. It’s almost always something physical. I hike a lot with my girlfriend. I like to be active.
Congratulations to Dr. Bui of Simply Beautiful Smiles for being our Dental Health Partner of the Month, and a big thank-you for taking the time to share his thoughts with us!