Giving Back

Datuk Dr Teo Choo Kum PJN believes in lifelong learning and contributing to one's profession and community

July - Sept 2022

Where did you grow up, what did your parents do for a living and what were your interests as a child? How do you think your formative years led you to choosing to study dentistry?

I was born and raised in Sungai Gedong, Perak. My late father inherited some sundry shops from my grandfather and he continued to run them until about 70 years of age. My mum was a housewife who was mostly occupied with raising me, my two other siblings and taking care of the family. 

As a boy growing up in a small village, there was no television at that time and radio broadcasts ended at midnight daily. Hence, my childhood buddies and I used to make toys such as catapults, bird cages, fishing rods and kites out of bamboo and tree trunks or woods that were available around the vicinity. The idea of becoming a dental surgeon had tremendous appeal to me since I would have the opportunity to lay my hands on more sophisticated tools and create or perform more complex crafts and models. 

My decision to study dentistry was affirmed when I started my dentistry course in Singapore in 1968. On the first day of enrolment, the University made it compulsory for all dental freshmen to sit for an aptitude test on manual dexterity. To my surprise, I passed with flying colours and was unconditionally offered to join as a 2nd year student in the dentistry course.

Did you have any other aspirations growing up or has dentistry always been your chosen field?

Truth be told. I wasn’t clear what I wanted to be when I was growing up. My decision to pursue dentistry was mostly motivated by my father and my family. Back then, it was usual practice for the sons to inherit and continue on with the family business if they did not perform well in school. 

I was determined to do well academically in school. After obtaining my Higher School Certificate in 1967, my father encouraged me to take up medical or science related courses. I applied to both University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur (‘UM’) and University of Singapore (‘SU’). I was offered entry into B.Sc.(1st year) course in UM. However, I was offered a choice of either BDS (Dentistry 1st year) or B.Pharm (Pharmacy 2nd year) courses in SU. After lengthy discussion with my parent on job opportunity after graduation and having considered my family’s financial circumstances, I made up my mind to pursue dentistry course at the University of Singapore. I was fortunate to complete my BDS degree in 4 years, instead of the usual 5 years, as I began my dentistry degree course as a “superfresh” (2nd year) student, further reducing financial burden on my family.

When you first started as a young dentist, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Back in those days, there was an acute shortage of dentists in the public health sector, with only about 400+ dentists serving the whole nation. The Malaysian Government then made it compulsory for every new dental graduate to serve in the public service for two years before he or she was eligible to apply for an Annual Practicing Certificate (APC) to commence private practice. When I was absorbed into public service as a dental officer upon graduation in 1972, I was posted to Pokok Sena Main Health Centre, a small rural town near Alor Star in Kedah. There, I had to start a full dental service for the entire township. Although the clinic wasn’t too busy, it was a new experience nonetheless and the start of a new chapter in my life. 

After leaving public service in 1974, I started my own practice in Taiping. It was initially quite difficult to build my practice from scratch because there were no mortgages, leasings or loans available back then and I had to pool all my family resources as capital to start my practice. From then on, I was quite fortunate that my practice grew rather rapidly because of my family’s strong and relentless support and also due to the small number of private dentists around at that time

What have been the highlights of your career, and what do you feel have been your greatest achievements thus far?

In 1982, I was pleasantly delighted to have gained a British Council scholarship to pursue a Master of Science degree course in Conservative Dentistry at the famed UCL Eastman Dental Institute of the University of London. Upon my return in 1984, I joined an established Specialist Orthodontic Practice in Kuala Lumpur until 2015 when I was invited by Dr Jeanette Chua, to merge my practice with a few other established practices in and around the Klang Valley to form the Artius Dental Group.

I am extremely grateful to be appointed by two successive Ministers of Health to serve as a member of the Malaysian Dental Council for 6 years. Not only that, I was also part of the Dental Act Amendment Committee for close to 10 years where my expertise and recommendations were leveraged on to improve and update laws and regulations governing the dental profession. Finally, I am truly humbled and honoured to have been bestowed Darjah P.J.N (Panglima Jasa Negara), a Federal Datukship by Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di-Pertuan Agong XII entitling me to use the honourific title of ‘Datuk’, in recognition of my various contributions to uplift the dental profession, the community at large and place our country on the world dental stage.

How much has the industry changed from when you first started out?

There has been tremendous changes over the decades, especially in terms of the development of new tools and machines to support dentists in their practice. The tools these days are so sophisticated that the learning curves of younger dentists are greatly shortened, cutting down on manual dexterity manoeuvres. This is due to the preformed appliances and computer-aided simulations to show proposed treatment results well in advance to our patients. However, in my humble opinion, it is still important to learn and maintain those basic technical skills such as diagnostic wax-ups, making accurate physical plaster casts etc. so that one is able to achieve or augment results that may not be possible solely through a computer programme on simulations. 

I also see that the Malaysian dental profession is on par with most advanced countries. I observe that more and more upcoming dental practitioners are investing in sophisticated tools and equipments, even though they could be quite pricey, for the benefit of their patients. For instance, the Artius Dental Group that I co-founded, has invested in establishing an in-house customized Dental Operating Theatre, fully equipped to carry out a full range of dental operative and surgical procedures that require relative and general anaesthesia in an aseptic environment and has also set up a fully digital Dental Laboratory to maximise positive outcomes, besides 3-D imaging CBCT, and high resolution dental microscope etc. 

At the end of the day, it is easier to achieve the best optimal treatment results for our patients by engaging these tool and equipment supports and facilities.

Having served in various capacities in the MDA, can you talk about some of your proudest moments and achievements?

During my tenure in MDA spanning nearly a decade, I was extremely proud that during my year of Presidency in 2005, MDA hosted the Asia Pacific Dental Congress in Kuala Lumpur and we managed to invite the then Honorable Minister of Health, YB Dato’ Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, to grace and officiate the opening of this prestigious regional Congress and delivered a keynote address. I was the Scientific Program Chairman of that Congress and I was assigned the task to invite renowned international speakers to deliver lectures and conduct workshops not only for our Malaysian dentists but also for those participants from the Asia Pacific region who came to sharpen their clinical acumens and skills. Besides this, I managed to mobilise more than 500 fellow dentists as volunteers to serve our Association which embarked on a month-long nationwide Oral Health Campaign in collaboration with Colgate Palmolive Malaysia. We held road shows and conduct free dental check-ups for the Malaysian public at shopping malls and many private dental clinics at major towns and cities throughout the country.

Out of all your past engagements, is there a particular role you would take on again, given the opportunity?

I used to be a part time lecturer in the Department of Conservative Dentistry, Faculty of Dentistry in University of Malaya from 1989 to 1997. I especially enjoyed my time there because I had the opportunity to interact with final year dental students and impart my knowledge and life experiences to the younger generation who would soon qualify and become successors of the profession. I am proud to mention that some of the students whom I taught and mentored have become Professors and Deans of Universities. Some are now practicing as Dental Specialists in the private sector and several of them had become Presidents of MDA and also hold office in regional and international dental organisations.

 At this stage of my professional life, I would love to take on a teaching role again for practicing dentists and I have been fortunate to be invited as a trainer at Ancora Imparo, a group focused on continuing dental education. The sessions that I do are mostly focused on practical or clinical tips and knowledge gathered from my years of clinical experience based on actual patients’ cases and other specific areas which are not readily found in textbooks. Participants of these courses have come up to me and expressed their appreciation and gratitude, giving me a great sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.

Which areas of dental health in Malaysia do you feel need the most attention, and which have seen vast improvements over the years?

I think gum disease has often been overlooked, mainly because of high prevalence and high cost of treatment especially those that involve surgical intervention. In a National Oral Health Survey done on Adults (NOHSA in 2010) gum disease prevalence was about 94% and remained the same for the past 20 years. In other words, 2 in 10 adults in Malaysia have severe gum disease. Globally it is the 6th most prevalent disease and is significantly linked to the general well-being and longevity of a person.

Mild or initial gum disease is a silent one and patients do not generally feel any pain or discomfort until their teeth become loose. In moderate or advanced gum disease or periodontitis, the bacteria may directly or indirectly cause the structures that hold the gums, tooth and bone together, causing bone loss resulting in the falling out of a single loose tooth or several in a row. Bacteria that harbour within unhealthy gums can move along the bloodstream which could then potentially affect the heart and is proven to have a link to other systemic diseases such as diabetes mellitus. 

Our dental practices within the Artius Dental Group have placed strong emphasis on gum health and disease awareness besides teeth and oral mucosa. By paying more attention to our patient’s gum health status, we would be able to ensure that our patients are dentally fit and healthy while maintaining good general health. Fundamentally, healthy gum would provide strong support for the teeth when fixed restorative treatments such as crowns and bridges are needed. A healthy mouth free of active gum disease also provides for optimal condition for implant supported prostheses to replace missing natural teeth.

*Over the last 2 decades, implant and digital dentistry have undergone vast improvements and practicing dentists have to constantly update themselves in order to deliver treatment to their patients based on current concepts and evidence-based dentistry. In current time, digital dentistry yields a more time efficient and safer modality for the provision of treatment to our patients in multiple disciplines and areas of dentistry.*

What are some of the lessons you have passed down to the next generation of young dentists?

My advice is: Firstly, it is important to spend time to build and nurture a long-lasting relationship with every new patient that walks into your office. It is difficult to run a practice that focuses solely on patient volume as it is not sustainable in the long run. Patients being seen at the “run-of-the-mill” practice will generally not benefit as much as compared to those being seen at a practice which aims to offer a more comprehensive treatment plan for them. With the incredibly huge number of new dentists entering the work force every year, inevitably it will become a “survival of the fittest” situation. Therefore, it is imperative for a new practitioner to stand out amongst the crowd and be unique. This is achievable by simply spending more time with your patients and gain their trust and confidence in you. Be an attentive listener to hear their history and complaints before you treat them.

 Secondly, you would need it to provide evidence-based education to your patients based on their needs, their wants or any other issues accordingly. Patients are typically unaware of the state of affairs of their teeth and gum because they are not able to see the internals of their mouth every day. By analysing their issues and advising on the next steps, explaining in simple layman’s language to let them understand, and make them aware of their conditions and treatment needs. Therefore, once you gain their trust, they will be more open to your suggestions and treatment advice in the future.

 Thirdly, if you have the opportunity to specialise or want to deepen your knowledge in a particular area, do not hesitate to act or take action, especially if you already have an interest in a specific area. It is never too late to learn more, to expand the scope of your practice and strive to excel in your chosen field of specialty. For instance, there are short courses available to improve your knowledge and skills such as at Ancora Imparo, where esteemed specialists around the world would tailor courses according to your needs and requirements. By the way, “Ancora Imparo” simply means “I am still learning” in Italian.

What are some other endeavours outside of your practice that you enjoy being involved in such as philanthropy, speaking engagements and so on?

When I was younger, I was not given much guidance on my career path and wished that there were someone around to help me decide on the suitable course and university to attend. As a Rotarian member of the Rotary Club of Kuala Lumpur Di Raja since 1985, I have been an advisor to the Interact Clubs of several secondary schools to give talks on career guidance to the students who would be completing their SPMs. I have also spoken to A-level students at Taylors College and answered many queries that they might have regarding the dentistry profession.

In 1996, I was periodically invited as a guest speaker in the `Radio Doctor’ segment in AiFM, a Mandarin radio talk show. I did this for about 10 years. This 45-minutes segment was my chance to impart my knowledge about dental health and also, to answer any burning questions from the public during their phone-in session. This mass media engagement had also been a good opportunity for me to “laymanise” dental health while brushing up on my Mandarin, because the DJ sitting right next to me spoke flawless and superbly fluent Mandarin!

What is your philosophy in life, from a personal viewpoint and a career perspective?

Always give back to the profession and your community in whatever way you can. If all dental practitioners maintain ethical and high standard of dental practice, it is a win-win situation for all of us. By setting the standards high and teaching our junior colleagues the right way, it will bring confidence in our dental profession and practice by the general public. 

Not only that, I believe in lifelong learning and education, both from personal and career perspective. I have picked up various languages such as Mandarin and Japanese because of my interest in languages! In fact, I attended a Mandarin proficiency examination in my 40’s while the other candidates were secondary school students aspiring to further their tertiary study at universities in China. I thought the examination was so tough because the other students were writing so quickly during the listening portion of the exam and I had some difficulty keeping up whilst listening to the tape. I was close to leaving the room but I decided to stay on and complete the examination. I was so glad and thankful to have passed this rather challenging Chinese language HSK proficiency examination at the Advanced level some 20 years ago. 

You can never stop learning, both in life and in practice.

How do you refresh your mind and unwind at the end of each day?

I usually unwind by watching television programs with my family. I tend to watch CCTV (China Central Television) to maintain my proficiency level in Mandarin and NHK WORLD-JAPAN to keep abreast and maintain my exposure to spoken Japanese. I do regular daily evening walks in the neighborhood to keep in trim and enhance physical health. Occasionally, I spend time playing with my grandchildren when they visit and periodically go on family holidays with them. This brings me much joy, happiness and great fulfilment in life.

You can never stop learning, both in life and in practice.