UP's Department of Community Dentistry: Caring for smiles in our communities

Posted on April 11, 2016

An overarching goal of the University of Pretoria (UP)’s Strategic Plan 2025 is to strengthen the Institution’s impact on South Africa’s economic and social development. The University also strives to serve its immediate community and society at large. One of the Departments at the University that embodies this goal in all they do is the Department of Community Dentistry, which resorts under the School of Dentistry in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

According to Prof Ahmed Bhayat, Head of the Department of Community Dentistry, dental diseases – such as rotten teeth (caries), gum disease (gingivitis) and oral cancer – cause pain and suffering and, as a result, impact on the patient’s ability to chew, smile and talk, which in turn affects their  psychosocial wellbeing and quality of life. Dental caries specifically, is one of the most common chronic dental diseases, affecting up to 90% of children and adults at some stage in their lives. Sadly, because a lot of people in South Africa simply do not have the financial means to visit a dentist on a regular basis, this disease, which is actually very easy to treat in the early stages, often results in more serious conditions, such as tooth abscesses, which require more intensive, and often more expensive, treatments.

In order to address this problem, the Department has initiated several community outreach projects with sponsors such as Colgate Palmolive and Glaxo-SmithKline. These projects focus on preventing common oral diseases and promoting oral health education, especially in less affluent communities. The services offered as part of these projects are delivered by means of mobile dental units (MDUs), the Transnet Phelophepa Health Care Train and various school outreach programmes. The majority of services offered as part of these projects are rendered by senior dental and oral hygiene students who work under the supervision of staff members from the Department.

One of the MDUs, which is used to provide dental services at schools, has been stationed at the Generaal Nicholaas Smit School in Pretoria West for the past three years. Pretoria West is one of the poorer suburbs in the region and many of the learners at the school come from disadvantaged homes. Dental and oral hygiene students offer services at the MDU three times per week, during which learners are screened and, if necessary, treated. Common procedures include extractions, restorations and the placement of fissure sealants. Since the launch of this project, the team has also implemented a brushing programme and provided oral hygiene instructions to learners. Almost 500 children received dental treatment as part of the project in 2015. A second MDU is stationed at the Daspoort Primary Health Care facility. Staff members and students visit the clinic weekly and offer primary dental services such as oral hygiene education, restorations, extractions and cleaning (scaling and polishing) to community members.

As a result of a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Transnet and all dental universities in 2008, an exciting project was launched that makes use of a train to offer dental services to rural and isolated communities. The agreement allows UP dental and oral hygiene students to make use of a train service to visit these communities during an eight-week rotation on an annual basis. The rotation schedule means that each group, which consists of six dental and two oral hygiene students, spends two weeks providing basic oral health care services, including dental screenings, extractions, restorations, scaling and polishing, placement of fissure sealants, as well as oral hygiene education. On average, students treat between 20 and 30 patients per day and in total around 800 patients are treated by UP students during the eight week period.  Students also have the opportunity to visit nearby schools and offer oral hygiene education and nutritional advice.

In terms of the Department’s school outreach projects, staff and students from the Department regularly visit nursery schools all over the city in order to determine the baseline oral health status of young children, to improve oral health knowledge and to establish preventive procedures at a young age. The idea behind these visits is to prevent young children from suffering from dental caries and to allow for the planning of future dental services. Approximately 450 nursery school learners participated and received oral hygiene instructions, screening and nutritional advice from visiting students in 2015.

The oral hygiene staff and students of the Department have also adopted four special needs schools in and around Pretoria, namely the Alma School for mentally disabled children, Prinshof School for visually impaired children, Trans-Oranje School for hearing impaired children and Pretoria School for children with cerebral palsy. These schools are visited on a weekly basis and brushing programmes have been implemented and are being monitored by both students and teachers. As part of the programme, each child receives a toothbrush that is marked with their name in order to allow them to continue the brushing programme on a daily basis. The aim is to empower these children to be able to brush their own teeth well. Oral hygiene students teach and then supervise the children’s their brushing technique.

As part of their training, oral hygiene students also provide services to patients in hospitals. They visit the Steve Biko Academic Hospital’s children’s oncology ward twice a week to provide oral hygiene instructions, education and nutritional advice to patients and their parents/caregivers. Approximately 700 paediatric patients received comprehensive oral hygiene instructions in 2015. Final-year oral hygiene students who are part of the Public Oral Health Elective also visit the Tshwane District Hospital HIV/AIDS Clinic once a week to provide oral health education and preventative service to HIV/AIDS outpatients.

According to the World Health Organisation, the prevalence of oral diseases is increasing in low- and middle-income countries, and in all countries, the oral disease burden is significantly higher among poor and disadvantaged population groups. This makes projects such as the ones initiated by UP’s Department of Community Dentistry absolutely invaluable – not only in terms of providing excellent opportunities for students to gain practical experience that will allow them to ultimately become better health care professionals, but also in terms of providing much needed oral health services to members of society who would otherwise have remained on the periphery.


- Author Ansa Heyl

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