Dentist couple serve under-served population through South Texas Rural Health Services Inc.

Service is job one for dental couple

Wednesday, April 1, 2015by Will Sansom

School of Dentistry graduates Peter Pham, D.D.S., and Jennifer Vanscoy-Pham, D.D.S., say the school prepared them well for a career of service in public health dentistry.

Dr. Peter Pham and his wife, Dr. Jennifer Vanscoy-Pham, dreamed of serving others before their dental careers. Their education at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio reinforced this, and, when they graduated from the School of Dentistry in 2013, their present to each other was not a trip to Europe or Hawaii, but a dental mission to El Salvador.

Today, this couple cares for underserved populations through South Texas Rural Health Services Inc. Dr. Vanscoy-Pham sees patients at the nonprofit’s dental clinic in Devine, while Dr. Pham, the organization’s dental director, works primarily at the Cotulla clinic. James Doyle, D.D.S., a third graduate of the Class of 2013, sees patients in the Carrizo Springs dental clinic.

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Vietnam trip

Dr. Pham is from Clear Lake, Texas, near Houston. “As a kid, I knew I wanted to help people,” he says. “My dad took me to Vietnam when I was 19. I saw a lot of poverty and that was when I truly wanted to serve others.” He attended UT Austin as a premed student and ultimately chose dentistry because he likes working with his hands and working with people.

Dr. Vanscoy-Pham grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas, 50 miles south of Houston. She also attended UT Austin and studied biomedical engineering. After shadowing a physician, she asked a counselor for options and found dentistry. “I investigated it, did some papers on dental materials, and thought it would be a great outlet for helping people and having a lifestyle to raise a family,” she says.

Public health emphasis

Both are complimentary of their School of Dentistry education.

“I was impacted by the emphasis on public health that the School of Dentistry teaches,” Dr. Pham said. “You have a South Texas rotation where you pick a town and work at a public health clinic. For two weeks, you live there and work. That was when it solidified for me that I wanted to do public health.”

As alumni, he and Dr. Vanscoy-Pham continue to serve on mission trips with the Christian Medical & Dental Association, which meets on campus. Their most recent trip was to Laredo.

Relating and researching

Caring for patients at the School of Dentistry clinic, under faculty supervision, taught Drs. Pham and Vanscoy-Pham how to relate to patients, treat the gamut of oral health conditions, and understand patients’ lives and limitations in scheduling appointments. This wisdom is serving them well today in the public health realm.

Dr. Pham also appreciated the school’s emphasis on evidence-based dentistry. “Faculty developed the Critically Appraised Topics program, which prompts students who encounter clinical problems to ask questions, search a research database and find evidence-based research to come up with a conclusion,” he says.

Dr. Vanscoy-Pham broadened her educational experience by pursuing oral cancer research in the lab of Cara Gonzales, D.D.S., Ph.D., assistant professor of comprehensive dentistry, and also traveled to San Diego, Calif., to pursue research.

Counseling patients

Dr. Vanscoy-Pham recalls a time when a dentist helped her overcome a problem that could have compromised her own oral health. “Growing up, I used to have bulimia, an eating disorder that damages teeth,” she says. “My dentist called me out on it. He didn’t tell my parents but said I needed to get it under control or he would tell them. I now speak to others about it. Bulimia can cause damage to the mouth, and it is something that people keep secret.”

Three months after Drs. Pham and Vanscoy-Pham joined South Texas Rural Health Services, the dental director, Daniel Theagene, D.D.S., passed away. Dr. Pham accepted the challenge to step in to the role. “Being the dental director at South Texas Rural Health has opened my eyes to what it takes to run a public health clinic,” Dr. Pham says. 

Foundation grant

Drs. Pham and Vanscoy-Pham, and South Texas Rural Health Services Chief Executive Officer Alfredo Zamora Jr., were among those who ceremonially broke ground recently to expand the Devine clinic. The project is made possible by a $380,000 grant from the Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio.

Inspired by their education, current work and life goals, establishing another clinic is part of this amazing couple’s dream for the future. Their patients will be the beneficiaries.