Oral health specialists who volunteer abroad

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oral health specialists who volunteer abroad
Photo: jhp518 – 123RF

Despite their many and varied backgrounds, oral health specialists who volunteer abroad all agree that the experience—despite the challenges—is well worth it. By Tracey Porter 

Linda Barlow has an irrational fear of flying. Yet once a year the 56-year-old dental therapist uses nearly half of her allocated four weeks of annual leave to board a tin can and fly three excruciating hours to a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

Once on the ground, Barlow spends her days working pro bono, doing what she can to support communities on Vanuatu’s remote Malekula Island.

“I graduated 36 years ago and have always had a passion for working in communities that do not have easy access to oral health care,” she says. 

“Some of my happiest memories in dental therapy are from working in rural communities across NSW. I’ve had a long stint as a dental therapist and to avoid burnout, I’m not afraid to give myself a challenge.” 

The first time Karen Smart, an oral health therapist and a lecturer in Advanced Clinical Practice at CQUniversity, ventured to a developing country was when she went to supervise two of her students who had donated their skills at the behest of the Vanuatu Ministry of Health (MoH).

So impressed was Smart by the work being done, that just three years later she returned to volunteer her skills as a part of a diverse interprofessional team that included oral health therapists, dental therapists, dental assistants, an admin officer, a plumber and an IT guru.

On both a professional and personal level, both women consider their experiences life-altering.

“The week on the island was a chance to reset from the hectic daily life at home and constantly being connected on the net,” Smart says.

“It was also a reminder of how fortunate we are to have access to health care in Australia.”

For Barlow, the impact of such visits was immediate. “It’s overwhelming how the villages and schools embrace our visits. We’ve had adults walk for miles with a swollen face because they knew we were coming. Even the children are grateful. Most don’t speak English but you can see it in their eyes, they know you are there to help. I’ve had a few kisses blown my way as a thank you after an extraction.” 

We’ve had adults walk for miles with a swollen face because they knew we were coming. Even the children are grateful. Most don’t speak English but you can see it in their eyes, they know you are there to help. I’ve had a few kisses blown my way as a thank you after an extraction. 

Linda Barlow, volunteer, Smile Vanuatu

The pair are just two of the dozens of volunteers registered with self-funded NFP volunteer group Smile Vanuatu, a group of Australian oral health professionals dedicated to promoting oral hygiene through health promotion, education, research and activism. 

The charity is one of several Australian-based dental volunteer organisations operating in countries including Vietnam, Nepal and Bangladesh, that provide free-of-charge assistance to people who may not receive the dental treatment they need or who don’t possess an understanding of good oral health practices.

Christine Southall, who founded the organisation in 2011, says each Smile Vanuatu mission works under the direction of the Vanuatu MoH and the management of Norsup Hospital. 

Southall says because her program also supports a supervised brushing-of-teeth-in-schools program, collaborates with a local cleft palate support group, and works alongside volunteer plastic and reconstruction surgeons support teams, it is vital that each mission involves an integrated health professional team.

Like all good programs, Smile Vanuatu has had to evolve over the years to ensure it continues to suit the needs of the community. 

In recent times, identifying tongue-tie and other oral-based abnormalities and setting up referral pathways for treatment to speech pathologists and physiotherapists has taken greater prominence, she says.

“We travel in the back of a ute and visit the local schools and villages. All examination screening is done at the school grounds and any further treatment is at the Norsup Dental Clinic. If dental treatment is extensive, a referral pathway to Santo and Vila hospitals is organised through VHM.”

Sustainability is also a major concern, she says. 

To get around this issue, her organisation acts as an outreach arm for Vanuatu Health (VH) and ensures a VH representative is always a part of the treatment team. 

“There are countless ways this model of care works for both the community and our volunteer team. There’s benefiting from local knowledge, assistance with language and local customs, providing patient history knowledge, and ensuring the volunteer team is at the best location doing the most needed work.” 

On a practical level, each excursion typically lasts around eight days, depending on flight availability. 

The week on the island was a chance to reset from the hectic daily life at home and constantly being connected on the net. It was also a reminder of how fortunate we are to have access to health care in Australia.

Karen Smart, volunteer, Smile Vanuatu

Southall says all volunteers must have full travel, health and professional insurance and meet Vanuatu’s Special Category Visa requirements before passing through customs. 

“As health practitioners in Australia, they must show proof of current AHPRA registration and indemnity insurance. They must also provide a letter from their medical practitioner stating they are fit and clear to volunteer in Vanuatu with current inoculations and carrying any necessary medications,” she says.

While each dental volunteer group operates slightly differently, for Smile Vanuatu participants, volunteers are expected to pay for their airfares, accommodation and food.

Barlow says because she intends to go to Vanuatu as often as possible before she retires, she operates a separate bank account that she contributes to each pay.

“Christine does try to keep the cost down but it’s a volunteer program. It is not a given [that those who wish to go are accepted]. I need to send an expression of interest each year. Smile Vanuatu is teamwork and having to submit a resume helps you prepare and be accountable, and also enables Christine to ensure she has the right group dynamic.”  

While there are many qualities Southall says she looks for when putting volunteer teams together, chief among them is ensuring volunteers know precisely what they are signing up for. “This is not a holiday on a beach. It’s a learning and giving opportunity that is both challenging and rewarding but you will learn as much as you will share,” she says.

Barlow says the program is much more than just ticking boxes.

“We don’t just collect statistics; we follow up with care. There is one full-time dentist on the island who works with Christine to coordinate the program and it is nice to know we are helping him in a small way. We also devote time to introduce tooth brushing because even though they do not have many fridges, soft drink is now sold on the island, in the village stores.”

As far as Barlow is concerned, the end results of her dental volunteer work are well worth the nailbitingly stressful plane trips she has to endure to reach those she is then able to help. 

“I don’t let my fear stop me plus it amuses others. They laugh at me which makes me laugh at myself.

“Honestly, I receive so much more than I give, plus I’ve been a few times so I look forward to seeing my friends on the island. It’s not a walk in the park, the days are long, but I’m so happy; it is like a holiday.”  

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