BY CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS
It seems that the number of articles in various dental hygiene periodicals about dental hygienists traveling to different countries to provide preventive dental care to those in need is increasing. I was fortunate myself to have experiences early in my career, traveling with Operation Smile to Liberia, Kenya, and the Philippines. These experiences are truly sensational in many areas, including, of course, the satisfaction of helping those in need while promoting the practice of dental hygiene.
Additionally, these experiences often expose dental hygienists to a completely different dental care delivery system. Practicing in another country can enlighten a provider, and the perspectives gained during these opportunities can help a dental hygienist have unique experiences employing different strategies to recurrent issues within a system. Simply, it helps us think outside of our closely-practiced box.
Another trend that I frequently hear of is dental hygiene programs -- both faculty and students -- traveling to different countries as part of their educational experiences. What a tremendous experience for students and what a great potential for faculty development.
For example, Old Dominion University's School of Dental Hygiene is partnering with Physicians for Peace and the University of Nicaragua-Leon Dental School to establish the first dental hygiene education program in Central America. Gaye McCombs, RDH, MS, the graduate program director said that ODU is working to expand dental care in Nicaragua by establishing this program. This is a great way to show your students the opportunities for dental hygienists -- leading by example.
Students of the University of New Mexico's Division of Dental Hygiene went on their first international oral health-care mission trip traveling to Nicaragua this past summer. The program was developed and coordinated by UNM faculty. In addition to the dental hygiene students who traveled there, a physician, a physician's assistant, a dentist, registered dental hygienists, and volunteers also participated.
Professor Vicki Gianopoulos, the program coordinator, pointed out one of the strengths of the University of New Mexico is the strong international ties that exist to enable opportunities for students to learn about other cultures in their studies. This teaches students how valuable collaborations can be and how to integrate dental hygiene into existing models to benefit all parties.
Students had the opportunity to travel to rural areas outside of Granada, Nicaragua, to treat hundreds of patients with very limited access to care. Patients were initially triaged according to their greatest need. They then were escorted to a dental hygiene student, the dentist, or to the physicians. This multidisciplinary approach to treating patients was successful in addressing most of the Nicaraguan patients' needs.
Students gained an unforgettable experience of working with a different culture from one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. They also were exposed to the unique culture and countryside by participating in daily excursions. Professor Gianopoulos appreciated that students learned about being sensitive to cultures other than their own. Additionally, she felt that students flourished from experiencing health-care delivery within an interdisciplinary health-care team, which helped them envision dental care being practiced within a comprehensive health-care system.
If you have ever thought about traveling to spread dental hygiene as a practicing dental hygienist, take the step; it is well worth it! I also feel that dental hygienists who have had the opportunity to work in other countries as students are likely to continue to promote dental hygiene in many different areas after they graduate. With this in mind, I encourage all readers, practicing dental hygienists, students, and dental hygiene faculty to help promote dental hygiene in other countries. This will further enhance dental hygiene care provided to those in need, and simultaneously strengthen our sensitivity to other cultures while expanding our knowledge on addressing issues within our own dental care delivery system. RDH
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