The thought of going to see the dentist can be enough to make some patients break into a cold sweat. However, for people living in a place where access to dental treatment is limited, a visit to a mobile dental clinic is reason to smile and celebrate.
The smallest patients can bring the biggest rewards. JCU Dentistry student Sophie Bennett discovered this while on placement in Cambodia earlier this year. During 11 clinical days she treated about 60 patients, including children from impoverished backgrounds.
“They were so sweet and so thankful,” Sophie says. “They didn’t fuss or sulk, like some kids do. They were happy to be there and did everything we asked.”
The fifth year dentistry student says her time in Cambodia broadened her understanding of the health inequalities that exist around the world. Sophie spent three days with One-2-One’s mobile community clinic team, which was based at the Kandal Provincial Prison. Some of Sophie’s patients had waited months for toothache relief.
“It was a pretty eye-opening experience,” she says. “At first it was a bit of a shock. The clinic was pretty basic. We didn’t have a dental chair, we used a standard-type chair that folded out. I was in the extraction bay, so I didn’t need too much equipment. The dentists doing the fillings, they had mobile hand pieces but no suction. The patients just had to spit out into a bin.”
After the initial shock, Sophie came to appreciate what the mobile dental clinic is able to achieve. Working alongside another JCU student, several Cambodian dentistry students and supervising dentists, Sophie was able to assist the clinic in its main goal of helping patients who were suffering and in pain.
“It was very rewarding to be able to relieve this pain for such thankful and compliant patients,” she says. “It made me more aware of how lucky we are here. Until you see the inequalities in health care firsthand, you don’t realise how good we’ve got it.”
The language barrier proved to be a significant hurdle during her placement. While she was able to learn a bit of the local language, the Cambodian students helped with translation or Sophie relied on non-verbal cues.
“It was definitely really hard,” she says. “I had travelled overseas before, but to touristy areas where people spoke English. Going there, some people didn’t have a word of English and the first few days were overwhelming. A lot of it was non-verbal communication, such as pointing to a tooth, then I would ask in the local language if it hurts.”
Experiencing work in a fast-paced environment with limited resources has boosted Sophie’s self-reliance and technical skills. The placement also provided clinical exposure to a broad cross-section of dental conditions, which has enhanced her knowledge.
“I became more independent,” she says. “I was exposed to a lot of dental conditions I hadn’t seen before. The extent of oral disease in Cambodia is so high and I probably wouldn’t see that in Australia. It will hopefully make me a better dentist.”
Sophie was able to do her placement in Cambodia thanks to a scholarship. “The Cowan Grant funded the whole trip,” she says. “I applied and was extremely lucky to receive it.”
Outside of her placement, Sophie had a chance to visit iconic Cambodian destinations, including Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. The trips gave her a chance to learn about Cambodia’s history and come to a greater understanding of the country’s people.
“It was really amazing to see Angkor Wat — it was incredible,” she says. “There was a monk there and I got a blessing for luck and longevity, which was really special. I can’t wear the bracelet because I’m working in a clinic, but I have it with me each day.”
If you have a passion for making a positive difference to people’s health, check out JCU’s Bachelor of Dental Surgery.