Global Volunteers Bring Dentistry to the Underserved

02 Aug 2016
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A volunteer helps a young girl brush her teeth at an orphanage in Bolivia. A volunteer helps a young girl brush her teeth at an orphanage in Bolivia.

If you’re a dental student who wants to see the world before starting a career, or even a professional who wants to help an underserved community, opportunities are available with Projects Abroad. Each summer, volunteers travel all over the developing world to contribute to a variety of medicine and healthcare projects, including dental work, all under the guidance of local medical personnel.

Since 1998, thousands of volunteers have worked in hospitals, clinics, and outreaches across the globe. These journeys have given them hands-on experience in treating people as well as a broader worldview as they are immersed in distant cultures. Programs run for one to 4 weeks or more, and participants can choose when they want to begin and end their tenures. Projects Abroad also organizes all the details of placement, including accommodation, meals, and insurance.

Elizabeth Cauchois, program advisor, gave us more insight into dentistry’s role in Projects Abroad.

Q: The program enlists 100 volunteers each year. How many of these volunteers are dental students and/or dental hygiene students?

A: The educational information on our participants is voluntarily self reported, so the data is incomplete. But the majority of our dentistry volunteers are predental students and recent graduates interested in learning more about the field in a cross-cultural setting.

Q: Are these students all in dental or dental hygiene school, or do you have undergrads who intend to go to dental school as well?

A: It varies, depending on the requirements for each project. Typically we get a mix of predentistry students, dental hygienists, and sometimes licensed dentists. We even have opportunities for high schoolers who may be interested in pursuing dentistry to shadow local dentists and learn more about what the day to day is like.

Q: So the program also is open to volunteers who aren’t students, such as practicing dentists or other support staff?

A: Yes! We have projects where professional, licensed dentists can treat patients and provide support and training to local clinics that would benefit from their expertise.

Q: What are the requirements for participating?

A: The requirements vary between each country. Some countries have no requirements, some have education requirements, and some have language requirements. Typically, our opportunities in Latin America and West Africa require either knowledge of Spanish or French. A few projects require volunteers to be 18 years or older, while some can accommodate 16-year-olds. The projects for our younger volunteers focus on shadowing and observing, while current dental students may have the opportunity to do slightly more hands-on work.

Q: Do the volunteers have any out-of-pocket costs for participating?

A: Each of our projects has a program fee associated with it. We do not want the communities we work in to have to bear the cost of having volunteers come, so our fees cover almost all costs on the ground—food, accommodation, transportation, and more. Plus, our local staff is there for our volunteers 24/7 if they were to need anything. Beyond the fee, additional costs include flights and visa fees.

Q: Which countries will these volunteers be going to this year?

A: Currently we have dentistry opportunities in Argentina, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Togo. For professional dentists specifically, we have opportunities in Cambodia and Jamaica.

Q: What kinds of dental procedures will these volunteers be performing?

A: For our nonprofessional programs, volunteers will primarily be observing, but it will be a range of procedures including cleanings, scaling, and extractions. Professional volunteers will be performing a wide range of procedures based on the needs of the community. Another big component of our projects is our community outreach, where all volunteers can learn more about the community they are working in and the oral health challenges they may face.

Q: Do some regions of the world tend to have a greater need for certain procedures than others?

A: Despite great achievements to improve oral health globally, there remain many challenges. The biggest challenge is often being able to reach adequate dental care—for those living in more remote towns, it may be hard to access healthcare—which is one reason why our community outreach and other such outreaches are so necessary and effective. Because access to oral health services is limited, teeth are often left untreated or are extracted because of pain or discomfort. Gingivitis and periodontal diseases are common. Oral disease is actually most common in several Asian and Latin American countries, with a relatively low threshold of disease in Africa, although this is expected to change as Africans consume more sugars and continue to have inadequate exposure to fluorides.

Q: Since many of the volunteers are students, how will their work be supervised?

A: All volunteers are assigned a local supervisor at the clinic or hospital where they are working. The supervisor will provide guidance, explain complex procedures, and provide help with translation if need be.  

Q: Where does the program get its dental equipment?

A: The dental equipment used at the clinics and hospitals we work at is provided by the facilities themselves. It is often the type of equipment that the local staff is particularly comfortable with and has trained with. Depending on the location, such equipment is typically very similar to what is used in the United States.

Q: Overall, what are the professional benefits of participating? 

A: For predental students, this will be an extremely beneficial experience. Many postgraduate schools recommend shadowing a dentist to test future career options and see how they will deal with different cases and different patients. Volunteers with Projects Abroad will gain this experience in a cross-cultural setting, which is even better. Interning or working abroad, for professionals or students, also gives volunteers experience with diseases they may not encounter at home, broadening their knowledge. Volunteers will see what it means to be a dentist in a resource poor setting, and how that can make you, in some cases, a more resourceful and innovative dentist.

Q: Finally, what are the personal benefits? 

Traveling always results in personal benefits—learning more about yourself and learning about new cultures and ways of life different than one’s own. Combining travel with worthwhile volunteer work can be a really positive thing. We have found that many of our volunteers continue to volunteer once they’ve returned home, positively impacting their own communities, encouraging others to do the same and developing an increased commitment to civic-mindedness that is infectious.

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