Welcome to the first edition of Dentsply Sirona Orthodontics’ “A Salute to the Women in Orthodontics” blog series.
Our first orthodontist is Dr. Manal Ibrahim, D.D.S. of Innovative Orthodontic Centers. Proving the adage that everyone has a story, hers is an international narrative that begins with a leap-of-faith by a loving father who plunges his family into the unknown for nothing more than the promise of equality for his young daughters. Fifty years and a few plot twists later, Dr. Manal Ibrahim is one of the most technologically savvy orthodontists in the profession. Here’s how she got here, what role passion plays in the profession and how she has escaped the trap of technological stagnation.
Thank you for taking the time to share with us today. How did you end up in orthodontics?
It’s funny that you ask this question because I was just talking about this. My past is like a corkscrew or spaghetti noodle! It wasn’t a linear path at all. It was something where each step took me in a different direction.
I started out in biomedical engineering in college. During my Senior year, I ran into a fellow biomedical engineering student I hadn’t seen in a while. Out of the blue he mentioned that he was now enrolled in dental school. I asked what he was talking about. He explained to me that it was the perfect combination of skills; engineering and artistry. That was it! In a split second, I decided to go to dental school!
Following dental school graduation from UIC in 1993, I decided to pursue another degree and enrolled in a challenging program obtaining a Certificate in Advanced Combined Prosthodontics in 1996. I practiced prosthodontics from about 1993 to 2002 and loved every minute of it.
Eventually I fell in love with the interplay between orthodontics and prosthodontics. To me, it seemed that so many prosthodontic patients could benefit from pre-prosthetic orthodontic treatment. So at the age of 35, I decided to go back to school this time at New York University and obtained a Certificate in Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. That’s how I became an orthodontist.
Do you pay attention to other women and their professional career paths?
It’s going to be difficult for me to answer this question because…well, let’s rewind a bit.
My older sister and I were actually born in Egypt. From the time we were born, our dad—a very forward-thinking Egyptian man back in the 1960s—raised us with the mindset that we could do anything that we want. Put the hard work into motion, dedicate yourself and make that commitment. Well, my dad worried about how his two girls were going to get educated, employed and live up to the ideals he was preaching in such a male-oriented country. Would we be able to move up the ladder and realize our full potential?
At the time, my dad had a very high position in electrical engineering for the government of Egypt. He used to bring electricity to all those rural areas that had no electricity. He would literally bring them light. Can you imagine how incredible that was?
Despite having provided a good life for his family, he made the decision to walk away from everything that he knew and immigrate to the United States. He brought my mom and my sister and me to America because he wanted us to have equal opportunities.
Immigrating here as an older worker meant it was all-but-impossible for my dad to find employment. He was way overqualified for so many jobs. Eventually my 15 year old sister got a job at the grocery store. That paycheck enabled us to move out of an apartment with nine people in it. Then my mom got a job assembling circuit boards for Zenith TVs. Not being able to support his family during this time was difficult for my father, who made such a brave and selfless decision to bring us here. Eventually his persistence paid off and he got a great job consulting for Commonwealth Edison.
But getting back to the original question, it’s really hard for me when there’s a conversation about equality for women. As always, there are two sides to the topic.
I always say there’s nothing that should deter a female from being anything that she wants just because she’s a female. I’m a huge advocate for doing what you want to do and being what you want to be and don’t let anyone stop you.
On the flip side I recognize that you have to work a little harder sometimes because you’re a woman. Maybe it’s because men want to deal with other men, or because they put up barriers against women without even knowing they’re doing it. I don’t think it’s a conscious bias. But it is there.
Is there something that you as a woman bring to the practice of orthodontics that perhaps a man won’t?
Well, I think that when passion drives you, when you love what you do, patients can feel and read the passion pouring out of you. Both men and women can have that passion. But I think there’s a different connection when a female doctor proposes something to another female. We are able to see eye-to-eye. I always tell my female patients, “Look you have a very specific result in mind. I get it because I also am very particular in the results I want. Let me help you achieve that result.”
I know how she looks at herself in the mirror because it’s how I look at myself in the mirror. Sometimes a man might perceive this as being ‘overly particular’ or ‘high maintenance’. And she might be high maintenance (laughing)! But as a woman, I can relate to her with an openness that a man might not be able to; I can think in the mindset that she’s thinking in.
I also think there is a different vibe that’s created when a woman doctor is treating a male patient. Maybe he wants to get a result that the woman in his life is going to love. I hope that when a male patient meets with me, they can feel my passion and open up so that I can deliver the result he wants so that he can feel good about himself.
What sort of trends do you see within orthodontics and specifically, around women?
I sit on the University of Illinois College of Dentistry Board and I can tell you there is a definite increase in the number of women coming into the dental school. Of course that trickles up into the specialties like Orthodontics.
As we talked about earlier, I’m just conflicted when we talk specifically about women as related to ANYTHING, because I’m so against someone doing something because they are female. I don’t want to be successful as a woman orthodontist, I want to be successful as an orthodontist. Period.
Do you think people see you as an orthodontist or a woman first?
Look, I know I’m not making it up when I say that when my husband calls an IT company he gets immediate results; when I call, I get the run-around. I know that’s a fact. So I hate that some people are so gender-specific in the way they see and treat people. I’m just not that kind of person. I just don’t want to be treated that way and I don’t want to treat other people that way.
Let’s talk about Innovative Orthodontic Centers. You’ve developed quite the brand, with multiple facets to it. What role does innovation play in Innovative Orthodontic Centers?
So, it’s very simple. It’s all about investing in the latest technology to the benefit of the patient. Not just technology for patient entertainment, but also for diagnosis, treatment planning and to render orthodontic treatment. Talk about incredible clinical outcomes! That’s the Innovative part of Innovative Orthodontic Centers. That’s what we are all about.
Let’s talk about technology for a moment. Many dentists are resistant to take on risk and as a result, they become averse to purchasing new technology. Can we assume technology is something that you’ve always been good with, or is that something that you had to grow into?
This may shock you, but it’s definitely something we had to grow into. Back in 2012 my business partner, Dr. Anthony LaVacca (who is also my husband) and I had a heart-to-heart talk. Even though our practices have always been called “Innovative”, what we thought was innovative 10 or 12 years ago was no longer standard of care and now simply out-dated. We said to each other if we continue at this rate, we’re going to stagnate. So we made the decision to be early adopters of every piece of awesome technology that we could get our hands on.
In the beginning consumers weren’t aware of technology in dentistry. That was then. Today, I know patients come to our practice because of the technology. I know this because they mention it all the time!
Do you see technology as a threat to your profession?
No! I love technology. It has changed my entire life. It’s bringing in all this technology that changed my stress level, changed the equation I calculate on a patient’s first visit, and changed my staff. We’re all so much happier.
Before the technology I was barely squeezing in a hundred patients on a four-day schedule. Now I can do that in two. I’m going to mold myself and reinvent myself based on the technology of tomorrow. It’s on us to reinvent ourselves to make this new thing work for us, whatever the new thing is. What we have to remember is that no matter how much technology gets invented, we can never lose the human touch. Technology allows me to spend more time with my patients. The most important part of my business is the passion for knowing each patient individually and providing services for the person holistically, not just their teeth.
Thank you for a wonderful interview. Is there anything you’d like to end with?
I feel grateful to God that he helped me find and follow this career path. It is an extremely rewarding career. I truly don’t even look at it as a job; it’s a hobby and a passion. The more I do it, the more I love it. And it’s So. Much. Fun. It’s a dream come true and I feel privileged to be able to do this for my patients.
Visit Innovative Orthodontic Centers at www.InnovativeOrthoCenters.com