Giving in our own backyard

Royal Flying Doctor Service Dental Outreach Program

Sharifa Tartoussi, third-year Doctor of Dental Surgery student

I first heard about the Royal Flying Doctor Service Dental Outreach Program in a local volunteering opportunities lecture at the beginning of my third year in the DDS. The general premise of the presentation was that looking outside Australia for volunteering opportunities, while charitable and humanitarian in nature, means that we often miss the opportunity to give back in our very own backyard. That night, I went home and sent an e-mail to Alison Avery, who manages the dental outreach visits. In late July, I was contacted to confirm attendance for a week-long visit to a series of small towns at the New South Wales-Victoria border. After working out leave with Melbourne Dental School, who were hugely supportive and made the process easy, I was off to the country.

In a team of two dentists and two students, myself and a fourth-year LaTrobe student, we visited schools and preschools in the towns of Cohuna, Kerang, Koondrook, Leitchville and Lake Charm, providing check-ups for the children and recommending future treatment for the permanent dental team who would return in September. The most eye-opening thing about the experience was how different practice becomes when resources are limited. Setups were made in classrooms using makeshift dental chairs and examinations were taken out using disposable mirrors and double-ended probes. Basic equipment like hand pieces, ultrasonic scalers, amalgamators and triplexes were unavailable, thereby meaning that even basic caries diagnosis required adjustment. We were forced to think about the principles underlying what we do as opposed to the procedures that we are taught to follow as, in many cases, these became impractical in the given setup. Time constraints also meant that, in a very short period of time, we were required to develop the skills to be able to pick up the imperative information and relay it in a way so that the patient would receive the appropriate treatment and standard of care.

The school visits also involved oral health education, in which the entire school (sometimes only 10 students) would be given a talk about brushing, flossing and diet with relation to oral health. In contrast, our visit the Cohuna Aged Care Home was palliative in focus. While visits conducted in schools were centered on ensuring optimum dental health and working towards ensuring that the children were able to keep their teeth healthy well into adulthood and old age, the nursing home visits were mainly to ensure that the patients were comfortable and free from any acute infection. As a student, this shed some light as to how treatment decisions were made in the special needs sector of dentistry and allowed me insight into the principles that underlie those decisions.

The towns we visited during our weeklong trip were still using water supplies that had not yet been fluoridated. This was reflected in that a fair proportion of the students we were examining were suffering from early childhood caries, some of which were severe. In these parts of remote Victoria, lack of access to fluoridated water and regular dental care meant that meticulous oral hygiene using fluoridated products was of a great importance, more so than that of city communities.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service, in addition to providing transport for the volunteers, also provided accommodation for the five days and four nights. Spending a week with experienced dentists also meant that students had the opportunity to gain insight into the dental profession and seek advice regarding both their professional and student careers.

On the whole, the trip was hugely enriching and eye-opening. It provided me with invaluable experiences both professional and personal. The multifaceted learning opportunities worked to augment my understanding of several concepts, particularly diagnostics and treatment planning principles. Presented with the opportunity, I would definitely participate in the dental outreach program. The work that they do is crucial and the experience gained from the trip is one I could not have had any other way.