Bulletin of Dental Education

Global Outreach Programs: What’s in it for the School, Students, and Communities?

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By Laura Iverson

Global oral health concerns have changed over the years, and globalization is in the mission and vision of every institution of higher learning. Once focused primarily on communicable diseases, the focus has now shifted to prevention of chronic disease. Institutions across the United States and Canada provide students with opportunities to develop a global consciousness. Educators came together at the 2013 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition to share their approach to mission trips, which are seen as a great opportunity to help students see beyond their communities.

There are a wide variety of opportunities and destinations all over the globe that present different challenges and learning opportunities. The World Health Organization defines a basic package for oral care provided during these clinics: (1) Oral Urgent Treatment, (2) affordable fluoride toothpaste, and (3) Atraumatic Restorative Treatment. There is an overwhelming demand for quality dental care, and residents of underserved areas arrive early to be the first in line to take advantage of these programs.

The scope of global oral health needs can be overwhelming. Students often work long days, and until their supplies run out, to ensure that those who need care are served. Lack of potable water and electricity, along with limited supplies, make the work challenging. Patients have limited opportunities for treatment, so students must improvise to make the best of the supplies on hand. When the situation is insurmountable, referrals are offered to other doctors in the region.

Interprofessional education (IPE) also plays a part in these mission trips. There is collaboration of countries and specialties during these programs. IPE allows patients the opportunity to get treatment for health issues that often overlap, or are indicators of additional areas of concern.

While these programs are popular, the hit and run approach can be seen as a negative. Practitioners on these missions hope that the patients take what they learn back to their families and villages, but they often don’t. Care and supplies can be expensive and scarce in these areas.

Also, there is often a lack of coordination between the organizations that coordinate these mission trips. “One of our biggest problems is that there are numerous of organizations that are crisscrossing, and there is nothing linking them. It would be helpful to have a central group to organize the mission trips,” says Tom Stevenson, Vice-chair at the University of Alberta.

Cultural immersion is a wonderful opportunity for students. Global outreach programs foster life-long dedication to global health care. Even if a student never returns to the country, they will have patients from these areas or with similar challenges. The experiences improve awareness of global health care, and increase cultural competence and diversity awareness.

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