College of Medicine and Dentistry Passport to (dental) adventure

Passport to (dental) adventure

Mon, 18 Jun 2018
Dentistry students on placement in Sri Lanka

Have scalpel, will travel. Seven JCU Bachelor of Dental Surgery students recently found themselves treating outreach patients within temples in rural Sri Lanka.

The fifth-year students trekked to the central Sri Lankan city of Kandy in March this year for a four-week international placement, under the charge of JCU Senior Lecturer in Oral Medicine and Oral Pathology, Dr Anura Ariyawardana.

During their stay, they helped to deliver outreach services from a Buddhist temple in Maho and a Hindu temple in Ramboda.

Dr Ariyawardana began his own career as a Lecturer in Oral Medicine at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy in 1994. He has been taking groups of adventurous JCU dentistry students back to his former workplace since 2014, so they can observe the challenges Sri Lankan dentists face – and also test their own knowledge and skills in a range of novel clinical and cultural settings.

“Our students complete more than 2,000 hours of supervised clinical experience throughout their degree, and the international placements provides them with greater insight into how dentists operate in different environments, and experience a different culture,” said Dr Ariyawardana.

JCU student Maxim Milosevic agreed that the clinical hours he had clocked up, treating patients daily since third year, had given him the confidence to try his hand at work in exotic locations.

“It has made transferring my skills to an unfamiliar environment, such as a regional Sri Lankan temple-turned-clinic, much less daunting,” he observed.

Fellow student, Khilan Shukla, said the experience had taught him how to work in less than ideal conditions.

“During an outreach, we had to work in a really low-resource environment, and that was a bit challenging for us,” he said. “We had just one plastic chair facing another plastic chair, and a torch for lighting.

"Once we got in there we had to rise to the occasion, but I felt like I was well prepared by my training at JCU and Dr Anura was there helping us out.”

The group of students travelled to a small rural community to help deliver an oral health education program. It focussed on a dental issue that the students may never come across in Australia – oral cancer triggered by the local custom of chewing betel nuts.

“When we screened the patients, we found five who were showing signs of developing oral cancer, so we referred them back to the university in Kandy for further screening and treatment,” Khilan said.

“The biggest thing I learnt from this trip was the importance of education and raising awareness about oral health in rural communities.”

Back in Kandy, the students also had the opportunity to view unusual cases, while observing the work of university staff in the oral and maxillofacial surgery department and in the oral medicine and oral pathology departments.

“We got to see a lot of really rare cases and diseases that we had only ever read about in textbooks,” Khilan said.

“We saw patients with congenital disorders, including Crouzon syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that prevents the skull from growing normally and affects the shape of the head and face. We also saw a patient with Pierre Robin Sequence, a condition where babies are born with a small lower jaw and a cleft palate.”

The students appreciated the chance to observe complex surgeries, including cancer removal and reconstructions.

“They were eight-to-twelve hour surgeries, and we got to watch the entire procedures,” said Khilan.

“The level of skill of the Sri Lankan surgeons, specialists and registrars was just phenomenal! In Australia, we tend to specialise more in one particular area, but in Sri Lanka, the clinicians were good at doing every single kind of procedure.”

In their spare time, the JCU students were keen to explore. Max and Khilan visited an ancient fortress and tea plantations, and enjoyed getting to know the locals.

"I took over a cricket bat and we became friends with a local family who lived near our hotel,” Khilan recalled. “They invited us into their compound and we played cricket with the local people there."

JCU Bachelor of Dental Surgery year-five students also have the opportunity to undertake an international placement in other countries including Cambodia, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Taiwan.

Khilan highly recommends other students to test and expand their professional skills overseas.

“Placing yourself outside your comfort zone and challenging your beliefs is something that is really worthwhile as part of your degree,” he said.

Khilan and Max are on track to complete their degrees this year. Inspired by his experiences in Sri Lanka, Khilan is planning to pursue further studies in medicine and ultimately specialise in oral and maxillofacial surgery, while Max is hoping to find work in the public sector, after a professionally fulfilling placement with Queensland Health.