Giving back: what you can gain from volunteering

London-based Dental Hygienist, Frances Robinson AssocFCGDent, has volunteered overseas for several years, providing oral health care in communities where it is much needed. Here she shares some of her experiences and offers advice for anyone interested in getting involved. 

It might not be everyone’s idea of “time off”, but I’ve never spoken to anyone who regretted the volunteering they’ve done, whether giving a talk on good oral hygiene in a school assembly or an extended trip abroad with an overseas charity.

As highly trained dental professionals, there are so many ways we can give back to both our local communities and the wider global community. We have a huge skill set that prepares us for volunteering, even without using our clinical skills. Communication, professionalism, working in a fast paced, ever-changing environment, are all key skills needed for working in outreach settings, with dental charities and in overseas communities. Furthermore, dental professionals are registered health professionals with moral standards to uphold and appropriate safeguarding certifications – all conducive to humanitarian work. 

Clinical skills are a recognisable asset for any volunteer within the health sector.  Dental professionals can offer their skills as part of an emergency relief campaign: in humanitarian crisis; in conflict zones; after natural disasters; or in refugee settings. Overseas volunteers are often needed to increase the capacity of local health facilities, as well as training and up-skilling local health workers.

I have volunteered with dental charities in the UK and abroad for several years and have gained much as a dental professional. I was newly graduated when I first volunteered which really threw me in at the deep end, but my experiences helped me become a more prepared, flexible and innovative clinician, as well as being a more culturally-aware team member.

I first volunteered for Dentaid in 2016 when I travelled with the charity to Nepal, and then later to Cambodia in 2017. Dentaid has worked in more than 70 countries providing safe dental treatment in poor and remote communities. They support dentists around the world by providing equipment, running oral health programmes and sending teams of volunteer dental professionals to help reach more patients and support local charities.  

Conducting fluoride applications in Cambodia with Dentaid

I had only been qualified a year when I took part in Dentaid’s inaugural trip to Nepal. In some areas we were able to help communities with much needed extractions for patients who were in pain and simple restorations and fluoride applications for those we could. We used very simple equipment, often with no reliable electricity, sometimes working outside.

An outreach clinic in a school in Cambodia

On one of our clinical days, we travelled by bus for three hours, then in a 4×4 for two hours and finally walked for one hour to set up a clinic in a remote school in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was shocked having travelled so far to see the children consuming excessive amounts of sugary drinks and sweets. The subsequent decay rates were astronomical. We set up preventative dental clinics in the rural schools on classroom chairs and tables. I came across a similar situation when I took the opportunity to travel with Dentaid to Cambodia. These transformative experiences became a catalyst for me to go on to study a Masters in Dental Public Health.

At the start of the pandemic, I began volunteering in fundraising and logistics for dental charity Dental Mavericks, who work in Lebanon, Morocco and Greece. In September 2021, I travelled to Greece as the first Dental Maverick to support a new partner charity to help support the dental clinic with dental volunteers in the Kara Tepe 2 refugee camp in Lesvos. I worked clinically, seeing my own patients and assisting other dental professionals. I also helped the charity’s founder and the clinical coordinators devise more effective data collection methods, restructuring their research to better attract funders, new clinicians and other support.

Treating a patient in a clinic in the Kara Tepe 2 refugee camp, Lesvos, with Dental Mavericks

Dental Mavericks focuses on promoting oral hygiene education and practice, making dental care accessible to vulnerable populations, including refugees. Their priority is to address the root causes of dental disease and take people out of dental pain. They provide emergency appointments, routine and preventative dentistry. They are hoping to help the Greek charity they support to expand the preventative aspect in the future. I am currently leading on a collaboration between Dental Mavericks and the British Society of Dental Nurses to support humanitarian workforce training.

Working abroad is an amazing way to see areas of the world that you wouldn’t otherwise visit. Interaction with patients that may have travelled many hours to see you is humbling in a way that is indescribable. But there are also many other ways that dental professionals can volunteer their time and skills. If you’re considering volunteering, it’s advisable to carefully consider how much time you are willing to give and what type of work you want to do, before committing to any voluntary opportunities.

Children and young people

Connecting with a local school to give assemblies and classes on toothbrushing and dietary advice may be a suitable option and can tie in with a preventative dentistry programme. Toothbrushing programmes in early years settings are recommended by NICE (1) and PHE (2); the effectiveness of these programmes for reducing tooth decay in early years settings and schools has been well established. There is scope for dental professionals to support their local settings with the set up and provision of these schemes. Designed to Smile in Wales and Child Smile in Scotland have been implemented with much success.

Care homes

A critical but often overlooked area of volunteering is supporting older people. Care home residents suffer a disproportionate amount of dental decay. Evidence shows significant differences between ‘institutionalised’ and community dwelling older people, with those in care having fewer teeth and significantly higher levels of dental decay (3), which has ramifications for an individual’s systemic health. Dental practices could consider collaborating with their local care home by helping to provide triaging advice for carers and oral hygiene advice for staff. 

Outreach clinics

There are many ways a dental professional can volunteer with an organised charity too. As well as providing dental care in remote communities abroad, the dental charity Dentaid runs clinics out of its mobile units all over England. They focus on vulnerable communities, for example the homeless, refugees living in the UK, residents in socially deprived areas and those unable to access care.

Another avenue for dental professionals seeking opportunities to volunteer is to reach out to non-dental-specific charities like homeless charities or charities for specific health conditions, and offer to help up-skill carers or other volunteers in dental health and hygiene.

Working overseas

There are many organised groups that offer voluntary opportunities overseas. It’s important to conduct thorough research into an organisation before committing to them. They should provide help that is culturally relevant, includes the local community, is empowering for its beneficiaries and looks to build a sustainable local workforce, where possible. 

As well as Dentaid and Dental Mavericks that I have already referred to, other organisations that provide dental support overseas include Mercy Ships and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Mercy ships is a faith-based international development organisation that deploys hospital ships to some of the poorest countries in the world, delivering vital, free healthcare to people in desperate need. They accept all members of the dental team and can focus on more complex treatments due to their on-board facilities.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare. This well-known organisation welcomes clinicians from most healthcare areas but has larger focus on medical care and sanitation. 

If I could give any advice to dental professionals wanting to volunteer, it would be to do a little bit of research before you decide on what you want to do and where you want to go. Then throw yourself in!

“At the end of the day it’s not about what you have or even what you’ve accomplished…It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.” Denzel Washington

  1. NICE public health guidance 55 (2014). Oral health: approaches for local authorities and their partners to improve the oral health of their communities.
  2. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/321503/CBOHMaindocumentJUNE2014.pdf
  3. Steele, J. G., Sheiham, A., Marcenes, W., Fay, N. & Walls, A. W. Clinical and behavioural risk indicators for root caries in older people. Gerodontology 18, 95–101 (2001). 

Frances Robinson chairs the Dental Hygiene & Dental Therapy Group on the College’s Career Pathways programme.

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