Q & A with Dr. Kim: Bringing oral health to the community

March 24, 2023

A graduate of the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry, Dr. Lina Kim has been curating a safe, kind, and comfortable patient experience in the Seattle area for almost 20 years. Along with offering her warmth and expertise at her two private practices in Laurelhurst and Magnolia and at Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic, Dr. Kim established a one-of-a-kind dental experience in 2022: the Floss Boss Mobile Clinic.

Inspired by the way she’s innovating access to oral health care and to kick off Oral Cancer Awareness Month, Delta Dental of Washington spoke with Dr. Kim about the power of prevention, making a difference through dentistry, and the upcoming Floss Boss oral cancer screening event at the University of Washington on April 3rd.

What inspired you to pursue a career in dentistry?

I was enrolled in a dental assisting program in high school and knew then that I wanted to be a dentist, because as a dentist you can relieve people of pain and aesthetically improve their smile.

When we smile, our brain releases many neurotransmitters that can impact our overall wellbeing. A smile can also build confidence, so you feel better in social situations, appear more approachable, and overall improve communication. Seeing a patient and helping them improve their smile and seeing that confidence is a victory for me.

Where do you practice and what do you love about the communities you serve?

I practice in Magnolia and Laurelhurst. I have two private offices. I’ve also been practicing for Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic. I’ve been practicing for almost 20 years, so it’s helped me curate a comfortable patient experience and provide a variety of techniques.

Some of my patients have been with me since they were a year old, and now they’re off to college. Establishing those types of relationships with their whole family has been the most rewarding.

Additionally, working in the public health sector helped broaden my scope about diversification. The challenges and barriers these families face have propelled me to start my mobile clinic, to serve in both sectors – private practice and community health.

You mentioned that you have been able to curate some techniques that provide patient comfort. Do you have any favorite techniques that you have adopted through the years?

Yes, I have a therapy dog in the office that we train. Peppa is trained to comfort some of our patients with general dental anxiety and has been an enormous help to our Asperger’s and autistic patients. I tell them, "nitrous is an added charge, but Peppa is complimentary if you want to try him!” Many times we can wean patients off nitrous with just Peppa, and he just lays on them. That's been one of my most rewarding techniques.

I also use techniques that I've learned at Odessa Brown because I work with kids often. With kids, you have to be quick and efficient and understand their level of trust. Once you have their faith, many kids will let you do any dental treatment without fear. I’ve also implemented that with my adult patients in my private practice. Building rapport and establishing a trusting dentist/patient relationship through proper communication is essential for a successful outcome.

Having someone work inside our mouth seems to have the potential to activate a primal part of our brain. Like ‘Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing in there?’ So, building that trust must be essential to the patient experience.

Yes! And with kids it’s interesting because initially, they do look at you skeptically. To be successful, you need to meet them at their level and speak their language. You have to use different terminology that is easy for them to understand, as if you were a part of a team combatting an enemy, the “sugar bugs!” Once again, it comes back to the same common theme of building trust through proper communication.

Eliminating barriers to care, supporting the academic dental community, and disrupting the dentistry industry matter to you. Why is that? Are they connected?

Absolutely. These three components are part of the Floss Boss vision: Convenience, Compassion, and Community. Floss Mobile is the new way of practicing dentistry and will revolutionize dentistry in a meaningful way.

By working with marginalized micro-communities, such as UTOPIA and REST, my team and I can treat and educate patients and also learn about their unique oral health conditions. We also feel fortunate to learn about the diversity of different cultures and values that each of these communities present with.

Intersecting public health and private practice has helped raise the bar of how dentistry can be delivered in an impactful, meaningful way. And I hope this can circulate back to the future generations of health care providers as they enter the field so they develop a mindset that volunteering isn’t a foreign concept by the norm.

So, would you say oral health is a public health issue? And why?

Oral health is a public health issue because early detection of oral cancer and gingivitis can really help reduce the overall dental and medical costs that can come with systemic illnesses. It's a whole-body holistic approach.

Prevention is the key to everything, including oral cancer, and a screening takes less than 5 minutes. It’s quick and painless. It can be done during your regular checkups, so if you go in twice a year, a lot of times things can get diagnosed in in the earlier stages. Earlier means more treatable. When disease becomes advanced or chronic, then they become a lot more costly to the individual and to insurance. So that’s where public health, I think, matters.

You’re providing cancer screenings at the University of Washington at the beginning of Oral Cancer Awareness month. What’s the value of routine oral cancer screenings?

It matters because targeting and diagnosing in the early stages increases the survival rate and decreases the chances of recurrence. Prevention, or early detection with screenings, helps get the patient to a referral source where they can get biopsied. From there, proceeding with proper protocol, whether it's benign or malignant, can save a life!

What inspired you to offer oral cancer screenings at the University of Washington?

April is oral cancer awareness month, and we try to do a community impact event or donate services to a nonprofit once a month. As college kids, they probably don't get home to see their dentist, and they're at higher risk for oral cancer. With college students, there can be exacerbating habits like tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, vaping, and then environmental factors like HPV and family history.

Why not bring our bus to Red Square and promote free screenings in collaboration with UWSOD Dean Andre Ritter and Delta Dental of Washington so we can detect cancer early on and promote awareness of oral cancer and prevention?

A couple of patients came to mind, inspiring me to bring awareness to college students. Four years ago, a student came in with an abnormal red, ulcerated lesion on the lateral border tongue, and we referred him to our local oral surgeon, Dr. Patricia Kelly. He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which can be life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated early or spread to other sites in the mouth and other areas in the head and neck area. His chances of survival would have decreased dramatically. Luckily it was detected and treated early enough and is being monitored for recurrence.

Another patient, who I recently saw on Floss Boss, was diagnosed by his hometown dentist with Ameloblastoma at the age of 20. He had his entire lower jaw removed. He only has his upper teeth remaining and a collapsed lower jaw. I shared his story with my team, including my Director of Marketing and External Affairs, Grace Youn, who wanted to bring awareness to people to get screened and prevent cancer from progressing.

I feel a strong emotional connection to Oral Cancer Awareness and want to ensure young adults in our community have access to this life-saving screening.

When it comes to enjoying a healthy smile for life, what do you most want UW students—and all people—to practice and remember?

Prevention and scheduling routine checkups are critical in maintaining your natural dentition and preventing inflammation and infection from progressing. Practicing good oral hygiene habits, like using an electric toothbrush and flossing daily, can help prevent cavities and reduce inflammation and gum disease. Lastly, maintaining a healthy diet and healthy habits can also support keeping a healthy smile for life.

If you could share a message with fellow or future dental professionals, what would that be?

I'm excited to create a movement amongst my dental colleagues, peers, and future professionals in the industry to promote awareness and volunteer efforts to help reduce those health care disparities. Having the mobile clinic easily allows me to set up well-organized community events, so our volunteers can have a seamless experience.

The Floss Boss Mobile is a purpose-driven movement. The goal is to create synergy for the greater good of our Seattle community. A quote from Helen Keller that I love is “alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.” I alone can make a slight difference. It’s coming together and utilizing our knowledge, expertise, and resources that really can drive us to help our community achieve the optimum oral health that everyone deserves.

Does this feed you in it like on a deeper level? Is this something that bring satisfaction to your life, to your quality of life?

One hundred percent. I love dentistry, and I’ve finally found my “why” in life and developed a vision for how I want to practice the next 20 years of dentistry. Combining my public health experience with private practice and the Covid era made me think outside the box and how I can create an alternative way of practicing dentistry that could be innovative. Whether you have insurance or are uninsured, you should be able to receive the same level of treatment and care in a very modern upscale environment. My vision, passion, and driving force have helped launch one of Washington state's first for-profit Mobile clinics.

Everyone deserves excellent, personalized dental care with a team that radiates good energy and positivity. Dentistry is invasive, but we've hit the mark if we can create the ultimate patient experience in an exciting new environment.

Working with these micro communities and microcultures, like you said, would you say that you have any sense or understanding that these communities might often feel stigmatized or fear discrimination when coming in for health care?

Yes, absolutely. When we first approached UTOPIA, the director told us, "we don't allow just anyone into our community." So, they had to interview us and ensure that we were safe and that their community would not feel judged. I guaranteed and confirmed that our staff would be trained on the usage of pronouns and educate them on their oral health in a non-discriminatory, inclusive way. But I like that because they're very particular about whom they bring to their community and feel fortunate that our team can serve them.

Have you done some of your own research, and educated yourself, to be able to educate your staff and lead them? How has that experience been for you and them?

As a leader, I've listened to many podcasts and audiobooks. I also take leadership courses at dental conferences. I'm not a natural-born leader! I was an introvert through dental school. Utilizing these resources and constantly yearning to learn and talk to other entrepreneurs has helped me develop my leadership style, improve my communication, and inspire those around me. In my office, I love problem-solving and engaging my work family and their input which allows me also to create leaders within the office. Because of this, they know their opinions matter as part of our work family.

At your practice, you’re known as:

The Queen of the Checklist and the ultimate multitasker. I live and breathe off checklists. My staff knows I continually refine them. They probably think it's tedious, but they appreciate it at the end of the day, as those checklists make the office smooth and streamlined.

I am a multitasker. Everyone says, "You're all over the place. Dr. Kim! How are you juggling everything? You have two teenagers!" During my daily morning runs, I strategize how to prioritize my time for the day. When I'm on the clinic floor, I devote 100% of my time to my patients, and in between patients, I work on the office or take breaks and play fetch with our office dog Peppa. Time is the most valuable asset to everyone. I make sure to make use of every moment of my time.

You’re happiest when:

In any given situation, when the result is a win for all parties involved, it promotes a sense of happiness, accomplishment, and fulfillment that can close out the day on a positive note. It becomes a win-win situation for everyone.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

I couldn't have done this without my Floss Boss team, my Advisory Board team, and support from my family and close friends. Watching my team grow with like-minded individuals who share the same passion has been amazing! We are a cohesive group and have experienced many unbelievable firsts. I was able to do this whole start-up in the beginning with their contributions, time, and expertise, so they are family to me, and I love them.