Elham Emami: “Dreams can be realized if we work together”

Q&A with the Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry
“People come in, sometimes in a lot of pain and distress. But when you fix the problem that pain is replaced by a smile,” says Dr. Elham Emami when asked what is the best part of being a dentist. “You helped them find that smile again.”

Dr. Elham Emami is an internationally recognized clinician-scientist who has dedicated her career to the promotion of oral health through service, education and research. Having worked at McGill as an adjunct professor since 2011, Dr. Emami was named Dean of the Faculty earlier this year, taking office on July 1, 2018.

Dean Emami sat down with the Reporter recently to discuss the Faculty’s priorities, future initiatives, and the role of women within the profession.

Tell us about the importance of outreach for the Faculty of Dentistry.

Our Faculty has a long history of community engagement and we are committed to promoting oral health and contributing to the well-being and quality of life of our population, and especially priority groups. Our mission is to integrate education, community service and research in innovative ways.

We have a robust program with a strong foundation. We provide free basic and subsidized dental care and oral health education to members of the community who don’t have access to such services.

Other universities across Canada and the world contact us to discuss the key elements of our outreach program – which, of course, is very encouraging.

I’m also very proud to say that earlier this fall, the Faculty was named winner of the Award for Outstanding Vision by the ADEAGies Foundation, for our leadership and outreach initiatives.

One of the Faculty’s more successful outreach initiatives is the Jim Lund Clinic at the Welcome Hall Mission. Why is this such a successful partnership?

It’s a very strong partnership based on shared ideals and goals.

Like us, Welcome Hall Mission provides essential services to a population in need. Many of the clientele are homeless, families, and at-risk mothers and youth. While we give free basic dental care, Welcome Mission Hall provides safe housing, healthy food and clothing.

I visited the Clinic recently and it was very inspiring to see people getting the kind of dental care they wouldn’t normally have access to. Emergency dental care and pain relief is an important service. Tooth pain is one of the worst, and for individuals who are suffering, even small emergency work can make a huge difference in well-being.

How does the Faculty provide this service at no cost to the patient?

We’re a small Faculty, so we don’t have a huge budget, but outreach activities are built into our budget.

For these activities, including the Jim Lund Clinic, we rely heavily on philanthropy and donations. The dental service is completely free of charge but our dental team at the Clinic measures the value of the services they provide for each patient, in order to account for the overall cost of dental services. This way, we can inform donors appropriately, and assess the impact and outcomes of the care provided.

What other clinics does the Faculty run? 

We have our Mobile Clinic, which sets up portable equipment in local community centres around Montreal.

Our Summer Clinic provides basic care for children aged 10 to 17, seniors and people with physical or intellectual disabilities.

We also provide services at the Montreal Children’s Hospital for children, immigrants and refugees who have no RAMQ coverage.

Any plans to expand the Faculty’s outreach activities?

We would like to create a new program and train future dentists to provide care to people with special care needs – for example, people with physical disabilities and mental disabilities.

Our elderly often have difficulty seeing a dentist. It’s an issue we must address because the population in Quebec is growing older. As well, we want to look at providing services to Indigenous populations and remote, rural communities.

Our vision is to train our students by having them rotate into a series of satellite clinics. We are still developing the model and are looking for donors to help fund it.

It is an ambitious project but dreams can be realized if we work together.

Why is promoting oral health in Quebec so important?

Quebec is facing significant challenges when it comes to oral health, mainly because the system is private. This is not only true in Quebec, but across Canada.

The current dental care model doesn’t integrate oral health into primary care. Primary care is the first point of contact for many patients, and having a dentist in the front line is essential in any health care system.

Although the change may not seem realistic because of the significant cost for the health system, there are some ways to address this. This could be a partnership between universities and the Ministry of Health and Social Services. Faculties of Dentistry can provide basic and preventive oral health care and oral health education in primary health care settings at a minimum cost to the system.

I believe that, as academics, we should be at the forefront of addressing affordable oral health care for disadvantaged populations.

Recently Quebec has welcomed many immigrants and refugees. They are new to the Canadian health system, don’t have information or dental insurance coverage, and many are dealing with language barriers. Working with key stakeholders, we can tailor specific dental care programs including educational and preventive activities to address the needs of immigrants and other segments of the population who need dental care but cannot afford it.

You have mentioned working with others and creating partnerships on several occasions. Why is collaboration so important to your vision?

During the last few decades, the ‘science push model’ has shifted to a ‘science pull model’ to address the needs of the public and to increase the collaboration with key stakeholders and policy makers to deliver the best research outcomes.

I believe very strongly in interdisciplinary research. Sometimes you come into a project with a narrow focus and when you work with other disciplines collaboratively, you broaden your perspective. The knowledge exchange process is an important part of co-learning and research outputs. All while being extremely rewarding.

How does the Faculty stand in terms of gender equality?

When this Faculty was established 114 years ago, women were not present. Obviously, we’ve made a lot of progress. Today, both female and male students and faculty members are representatives of our Faculty and have equal opportunities in all of our programs from undergraduate to postgraduate and graduate programs. The Faculty supports equity norms and parity in professional growth  as well as mobilization campaigns for gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

I believe that women have the ability to be strong leaders and administrators and have high multitasking capacities because of the different tasks they have in their lives.

What we need is more women in leadership roles, more visible examples to stand as role models for younger women entering the profession.

So, the ability to combine work and outside priorities, such as family, is important?

Life balance is very important and we should promote this more vigorously – perhaps through workshops and other training. And not just for women but also for men because they are also very work-oriented and it’s not always good for the family. We should be satisfied and successful in all facets of our life. Our career is only one part of that life.

When did you know you wanted to go into dentistry?

After I finished high school back in Iran, I think. I didn’t like physics or math, but I was very interested in the health sciences. Obviously, dentistry was among my choices and I’ve never once regretted it. I love it.

What do you love most about dentistry?

In dentistry you combine art and science. You work with your hands, very detailed manual work. That’s art. And yet, you’re relying on science to diagnose and treat people.

It’s also very rewarding because your work benefits people immediately. They come in, sometimes in a lot of pain and distress. But when you fix the problem that pain is replaced by a smile. You helped them find that smile again. This is the greatest part of being a dentist.