Africa experiences connect students to challenges of dentistry in the context of global health

Image of Dr. Abbas Jessani and staff in Uganda, AfricaOlivia Adams, DDS Candidate 2024, Dr. Abbas Jessani, Director Community Service Learning, Miss Silke Klenk, Director Internationalization, Matthew Novello, DDS Candidate 2024 at the Joint Clinical Research Centre in Uganda

By Cam Buchan

For the first time, students from Schulich Dentistry travelled to Africa to provide oral health-care services and learn from global health experts in Uganda and Rwanda.

The experience was part of the International Oral Health Service Program, an opportunity piloted last year locally and put into full swing this summer with a strong global health component. Fourth-year students could choose among service learning opportunities in Woodstock, Moose Factory and Moosonee, and also international destinations such as Kigali, Rwanda and Kampala, Uganda.

shakira-bapoo-and-fatima-hanif-with-colleagues-at-university-of-rwanda.jpgShakira Bapoo, DDS Candidate 2023 and Fatima Hanif, DDS Candidate 2023 with colleagues at the University of Rwanda in Kigali

Shakira Bapoo and Fatima Hanif were stationed in Kigali and paired with Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) students at the University of Rwanda. The students took part in the clinical rotations in the departments of restorative dentistry, oral surgery, endodontics and other clinical disciplines and provided oral healthcare service to the local patients in Kigali.

“We did everything we do here at Schulich, but we would see a lot more patients during the day and got to experience many difficult cases,” said Bapoo. Both Bapoo and Hanif were struck by the ingenuity of their student partners, who quickly adapted to the lack of resources they faced. “It showed me how important it is to be adaptable as challenges will always present themselves,” Bapoo said.

The students also saw firsthand the devastation HIV and other chronic conditions produced in the overall health of patients, who faced the double burden of HIV and other periodontal conditions and were often unable to gain access to basic oral health care because of their conditions.

“It showed me how stigmatization and marginalization are huge barriers to patients receiving the dental care they need. We see these barriers to dental care in Canada, as well. It reinforced to me how everyone has an equal right to care,” said Bapoo.

Beyond the classroom, Hanif learned from her student peers the importance of balancing her personal and professional life and staying true to her priorities.

“It’s very easy for me to get caught up in achieving the next milestone and feeling like I’m behind in life,” she said. “But I try now to see each day and each moment in my day as an achievement and truly appreciate that moment as a blessing.”

Olivia Adams and Matthew Novello partnered with students at the dental school at Makerere University, Mulago Hospital and Joint Clinical Research Centre for HIV treatment in Kampala. The experience had a profound effect on Adams as she looks ahead to her own interaction with patients.

“I strive to be an empathetic dentist who is conscious of our patients’ overall healthcare needs,” Adams said. “Experiencing the compassionate care provided to the dental patients in Kampala reinforced for me the need for advocacy for patients, no matter what their backgrounds, needs, or social standing."

Novello will also bring home the lessons learned in Kampala.

“I saw first hand the impact that proper oral care can have on their overall health. Seeing their conditions and empathizing with their circumstances makes me think of my own community,” said Novello, who comes from Sault Ste Marie in Northern Ontario. “I want to make it part of my practice to serve the underserved community there.”

These international choices give students more exposure to the real world of dentistry, and its connection to overall health care, said Dr. Abbas Jessani, Assistant Professor Restorative Dentistry, and Director of Community Service Learning at Schulich Dentistry.

“The goal of the initiative was to get our students to experience global health challenges and their impact on access to oral health care. I want our students to learn first hand about the challenges experienced by our underserved populations who are not receiving basic oral care because of psycho-social disparities, medical conditions, minority genders or location,” said Jessani. “We want to reach out to these local and global communities with safe oral care where their needs can be met on a personal level.”

Jessani said these international placements reinforce the students’ global responsibilities. It is also an important part of the international relationship created this summer between Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Uganda’s Joint Clinical Research Centre.

“It was very insightful, and certainly eye opening for students. They realized the privilege and comfort they have in practising here, and how talented people in other areas and countries provide exceptional care with very little resources. They do so much with so little.”