Top 5 tips for choosing a dental volunteering opportunity

Posted in: Blog, by Bridge2Aid Team, on 15th October 2013 | 0 comments

Mark Topley, CEO

Later this week we will once again be exhibiting at the BDTA dental show case at Birmingham NEC.  It’s a great privilege for us again to be part of the A-dec stand, P02, amongst 350 or so other organisations all presenting and exhibiting what they do to the 10,000 or so expected delegates.

One of the things that has been in evidence over the last few years at BDTA has been the number of new dental organisations offering volunteering opportunities.  This is a great encouragement for me – one of the reasons that I got involved with Bridge2Aid in the beginning was to help dental professionals who had a deep desire to do something positive for people in developing countries, to find opportunities which would be both a win for them in giving their skills, and a genuine win for the communities they were seeking to help.

croppedIt’s not always easy to tell from the photos or stories whether a particular opportunity is ticking all the boxes – it’s certainly very easy to get pictures and case studies of need, because it is so great. But although these trips do good work, not all do great work.

Over the past 10 years, having run over 40 teams and approaching 500 volunteers, I think have learnt a bit about what constitutes a great volunteering opportunity. I thought as we approach BDTA showcase, I’d jot down my top 5 tips to guide people in choosing something which will be both rewarding for them, and make a genuine long term difference to the communities they are seeking to help.

1. Is it sustainable?

Although travelling to a foreign country and practising dentistry that you would do in the UK may seem like a good idea, despite the fact that it will help the people that you immediately see, there will be little lasting impact after you have left, unless there is some kind of sustainability built into the programme you have chosen.  Sadly this is something that I have seen time and time again since starting work in East Africa in 2003, as mission after mission has come and gone without leaving anything behind or changing anything for the long term for the community. So the questions to ask – will there be an impact after I have left? Does the programme create anything that doesn’t need external support afterwards?

2. Is it appropriate?

This is similar to sustainability. The responses that we need to choose as volunteers need to be appropriate to the situation.  One of the major criticisms that Habib Benzian (World Health Organisation) made in his paper about dental charities in 2006 was that too many dental volunteers travel to a country and bring all of the same equipment and treatments that they use in the UK or the USA and simply practise this kind of dentistry in a developing country.  There are two problems with this. Firstly, it demoralises the local health workforce who may not be able to perform such treatment and secondly, it uses time and resources which could be deployed on far more simple but appropriate treatments for a far greater number of people. In fact the WHO go as far as to say that treatments should be limited to extractions and ART (simple fillings that don’t need a drill, suction etc). What sort of work will be carried out? If it is more complex than pain relief and education, then there is a good statistical chance that it will be inappropriate.

3. Is it integrated?

Very often volunteering organisations and opportunities ignore the fact that there is already a government operating in the country which has a strategy for oral health.  The approaches that they take and the way that they work often ignore this and instead seek to impose what the volunteering organisation would like to do, rather than responding to the needs the government have set out in their oral health plan.  This shows a great lack of respect for the government and misses an opportunity to integrate through negotiation and relationship to genuinely increase capacity and serve the needs they are trying to meet at a sovereign government. Does the organisation have a base and a staff or partners in country who are in contact with the Ministry of Health? Have they created or agreed a plan together that the work the volunteers will do is at least wanted, and preferably strategic?

4. Is it ethical?

Sadly we have heard of many instances of volunteering organisations in this part of the world who arrive in the country without even registering with the local authorities.  This lack of registration would not be tolerated in the UK where visiting dentists have to gain approval from the GDC to practise.  So why is the situation not the same when we come to a country like Rwanda or Tanzania?  There are laws here as in every other country that require dental professionals to prove they are qualified to practise and to register with the appropriate body. In addition, many volunteers do not contact their indemnity companies to extend their indemnity cover.  Again this shows a great lack of respect for the communities the volunteer is supposedly coming to help, as any accident or malpractice would then not be covered for compensation. Does the organisation ask for your registration certificates and obtain a letter of good standing from the GDC before allowing you to practise? Do they insist on proof of extending indemnity cover?

5. Does it involve training?

This for me is the absolute key. Does the opportunity to volunteer provide any training for the local health workforce?  Without training nothing will change.  At Bridge2Aid we could bring volunteers into Tanzania every week of the year to treat as many people as possible, but this still would not solve the problem of the huge burden of disease that exists in the country.  Volunteers simply cannot gain access to some of the areas in the country where people most need help, and yet the training of a local Health Worker in emergency dentistry could place just such a person within the vicinity where people are suffering daily agony – all for the lack of a simple dental extraction.

Of course volunteering that does not meet the criteria above (which of course are just my opinions) will carry on and I applaud anybody who chooses to give their time, effort and resources to help others in developing countries.  But by adopting these 5 simple principles, the impact of volunteering efforts could be magnified many times over, and many more communities could gain access to sustainable pain relief and education that would change their lives in the long run.

We need to change the way we think about volunteering, and even about what constitutes dentistry for the masses in places like Tanzania. We need to say ‘I care’, but be prepared to engage with the issues in an intelligent way that really listens to what the needs are and focuses efforts on the vast majority of people who don’t have access to the few dental professionals that do exist. As Bridge2Aid approaches 300 trainees and 3 million people with access to emergency dentistry in Tanzania, I’m more convinced than ever that this approach works, and meets the need in the most sustainable, appropriate, integrated and ethical way.

Our focus in the Bridge2Aid family is on providing permanent access to simple, effective emergency dentistry and education to the vast majority of the population who don’t have access to a dentist, and never will. It’s not an alternative to dentistry; it’s an alternative to no dentistry.

To take part on one of our 2014 Dental Volunteer Programmes – click here

If you are going to the BDTA showcase, make sure you register and select Bridge2Aid as your preferred charity, and I look forward to seeing you there. We will be on stand P02.

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