Reaching out

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The husband-and-wife team that runs the successful Southbridge Dental in Perth has also helped thousands of people through their volunteer work. By Kerryn Ramsey

When Dr Simon Shanahan co-founded Equal Health, the goal was to provide multi-disciplinary health services to people in need in developing countries. In the early stages, he never expected the far-reaching impact it would have on his personal life.

The organisation started in 1999 as the brainchild of Dr Shanahan and Paul Clarke, principal of Vison West, an optometry practice. “I had been running my own practice, Southbridge Dental, in South Perth since 1993,” says Dr Shanahan. “The business was going well and I had a desire to go out and do some good in the world. I chatted to some people who ran overseas volunteering projects and they were very encouraging about our plans for Equal Health. Paul had links with India and knew there was a need in that country that we could fill.”

Their first few visits to India consisted of an optical team headed by Clarke and a dental team run by Dr Shanahan. They also included a doctor who helped organise cataract surgery with the cooperation of an Indian ophthalmologist. Equal Health has continued to grow as an organisation and now regularly sends dental, optical, medical and allied health professionals to countries such as South Africa, Indonesia and Thailand. In their busiest year, they provided over 10,000 appointments in locations across India.

First trip

In 2002, dentist Dr Millicent Woon was interested in volunteering with Equal Health. After joining the team, she took on multiple trips to India.

“The first time you undertake one of these volunteer trips, it can be quite distressing,” says Dr Woon. “You’re dealing with people who have terrible oral health problems and no services. Often there’s no running water or electricity. Extracting someone’s teeth on a veranda surrounded by flies is always a confronting situation.”

There’s no denying that the work is hot, difficult and exhausting. There are no dental chairs and much workplace equipment is unavailable. Despite this, the experience is a rewarding one.

It’s just people helping each other, doing what they can. The concept of service and paying back by helping those less fortunate is a really good thing to do.

Dr Simon Shanahan, co-founder, Equal Health

“You’re often dealing with patients suffering from long-term and very detrimental problems such as rotting teeth and abscesses,” says Dr Woon. “It’s very satisfying to do work that dramatically improves these people’s lives.” 

Teaming up

It was during one of the Equal Health trips to India in the early 2000s that Dr Woon first met Dr Shanahan. Today they are married with two teenage children. They also run Southbridge Dental together with a shared practice philosophy.

“I had worked in the UK for a couple of years and at various private practices in Australia before starting Southbridge Dental,” says Dr Shanahan. “I had a very clear vision of how it would be run. I had experienced situations where it was all about volume and choosing materials that weren’t too expensive. As an employee, you don’t have much say in that, but it drove me mad. I wanted to do quality work. From the outset, Southbridge Dental has provided high-quality treatment and services.”

At that time, Dr Shanahan was a member of the ADA WA Infection Control Committee. He also ensured his business utilised best practice in that regard. 

According to Dr Woon, “Our vision has certainly paid dividends. We’re super busy and have employed two more dentists in addition to Simon and myself. We moved locations 14 years ago and are now in a beautiful heritage-listed weatherboard and iron cottage. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

Study group

As well as being a member of the Dental Board of Australia, Dr Shanahan is a member and past president of the Dental Study Group of WA, the oldest study group in the region. Dr Woon is also a member of the study group and was president when she was pregnant with their second son.

The first time you undertake one of these volunteer trips, it can be quite distressing. You’re dealing with people who have terrible oral health problems and no services. Often there’s no running water or electricity. Extracting someone’s teeth on a veranda surrounded by flies is always a confronting situation.

Dr Millicent Woon, Equal Health

“It was originally established in 1954, when there were no CPD courses available,” says Dr Shanahan. “It was started purely to provide continuing professional development, and it’s been doing that ever since.”

Dr Woon adds, “There are about 50 members and about half of that number are specialists. The group make presentations or organises guest speakers to come and give lectures. It’s an invaluable resource.”

Other avenues

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has seen visits by Equal Health to India cease for the past few years. There are plans to restart as soon as possible but Drs Shanahan and Woon have decided to step back from their involvement Initially it was an all-consuming passion with a huge time commitment for both dentists, particularly behind the scenes. “Organising tax deductible recognition from the ATO was incredibly difficult,” says Dr Shanahan. “You needed to be an accountant and a lawyer, and I wasn’t either.”

Even though they’re busy raising two teenage sons, they’re still heavily involved with philanthropic dentistry, volunteering with the Kimberley Dental Team. The team provides dental care to outback Aboriginal communities and disadvantaged people in the Perth metropolitan area. Dr Woon also uses her cooking skills with a variety of organisations, providing meals to homeless and disadvantaged people. 

Volunteer spirit

Drs Shanahan and Woon believe there’s a healthy spirit of volunteerism across the dental profession. It can range from a local dentist providing free work for a person in a difficult financial situation to a multi-week trip overseas, providing dental care to those in need.

“It’s just people helping each other, doing what they can,” says Dr Shanahan. “The concept of service and paying back by helping those less fortunate is a really good thing to do.”

“By volunteering, you meet amazing people doing amazing things,” adds Dr Woon. “And even though it’s really hard work, it’s also fun. We’re not piously sacrificing ourselves; we’re doing good work while enjoying it at the same time.”  

Interested in volunteering? Visit the ADA website: www.ada.org.au/Careers/Volunteering 

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