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Dental Students from Tufts and the University of Haiti Team-up to Promote Oral Health

In April, members of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine Chapter of the Student National Dental Association participated in a global service-learning trip to Haiti. This trip was led by members of the National Dental Association’s (NDA) Global Oral Health Outreach Committee, which, is an American dental organization with a mission of promoting oral health equity among people of color. There were two main components to this trip.

One component focused on laying the foundation for a formal relationship between Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and the University of Haiti School of Dentistry in an effort to promote future student and faculty exchanges between the two school. The second component consisted of assessing the needs of a rural community in Leogane, Haiti and determining the feasibility of developing a dental prevention program in the community.

Over the years, the NDA has collaborated with the University of Haiti School of Dentistry in addressing some of the school’s needs. Building on this relationship, this delegation of Tufts students, faculty, and NDA members visited the University of Haiti School of Dentistry where they met with the Dean, faculty and students. Tufts dental students got to hear first-hand about the successes and challenges facing dentistry in Haiti and they also learned about the Haitian dental school’s curriculum.

Access to a dentist in Haiti is extremely difficult largely due to the low supply of dentists in the country. In Haiti, there are approximately 300 dentists for a population of over 10 million people. There is only one public dental school in the country, which is the University of Haiti School of Dentistry. Individuals in Haiti rarely have routine dental appointments. If one is fortunate enough to have access to a dentist, they often seek treatment only where there is pain or discomfort, which often results in an extraction of a tooth.

University of Haiti dental students learned about novel ways to promote oral health in Haiti. Dr. Brian Swann, Chief of Oral Health at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts spoke to students about the importance of educating nurses and other health care workers about oral health and disease prevention. Students and faculty were also exposed to evidence-based prevention strategies like fluoride varnish and dental sealants for children. Later during the trip, the students would use what they learned to provide treatment for children in Leogane.

On the way to Leogane, the delegation visited the Saint Rock Haiti Foundation where they provided oral health education to community workers and delivered fluoride varnish and other supplies to the dentists there. The students arrived in Leogane later that afternoon and prepared themselves for the next few days of service.
The Rasin Foundation is a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that provides health care, preventive services and works to eliminate poverty in Leogane, Haiti. In Leogane, the dental students from Tufts and the University of Haiti worked side-by-side in the Rasin Foundation’s dental clinic and conducted screening exams, provided dental prophylaxis, fluoride varnish and sealants to children and adolescents. They provided care to over 70 children.

They also provided oral health education to children and mothers. Pairing dental students from the Haitian dental school with Tufts dental students allowed the students to learn different approaches to providing dental care. Since the Haitian students could understand both English and Haitian Creole, the language barrier between provider and patient was overcome. In addition to rendering these services, presentations were given to over 30 local nurses about the prevention of dental disease. Nurses were taught about fluoride varnish and its role in preventing tooth decay in children. In small groups, dental students and faculty from both schools demonstrated how to conduct a dental screening exam and identified important landmarks in the mouth to focus on when screening for dental disease. Later, the next day, nurses were invited to observe the students and faculty as they provided treatment to children. Information regarding oral health status, number of decayed, missing, or filled teeth, and the treatment provided for each child was recorded.

By participating in this Tufts Global Service-learning (GSL) trip to Haiti, students understood the importance of learning about the history and culture of Haiti prior to traveling to the country. Before this experience, students had to complete a GSL curriculum at Tufts which stressed the importance of serving with the local community rather serving the local community with a “savior complex” mentality. During the trip, the team visited the Haitian National Museum and historical landmarks in Port-au-Prince.

Since this trip occurred during Holy Week, students had the opportunity to observe the Rara celebration which consisted of music and dancing in Leogane in celebration of Haiti’s struggle and fight for independence. Additionally, students attended Easter Sunday Mass during the last day of the trip. These experiences allowed students to see a side of Haiti that is rarely advertised. These experiences helped to complete the picture of this complex and beautiful country.

With the service-learning approach students from both countries effectively worked together to deliver care to children who needed it the most. It was important for the students from Tufts to understand that service-learning requires understanding the needs of a community and working with members of the community to address those needs.

The students are thinking of ways of building upon this effort and working with the University of Haiti in creating a sustainable oral health program in Leogane, Haiti. They are already planning for next year’s trip.

Nicholas Gordon, DMD, MPH is Pediatric Dental Resident, Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine and Co-Chair NDA Global Oral Health Outreach Committee.