Traveling to a developing country for a volunteering experience has been something I have wanted to do for many years. I found the Universitas 21 Global Learning Partnership a particularly unique opportunity due to its focus on sustainability, inter-professionalism and worldwide collaboration.
I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to participate in this program and concomitantly visit Nepal. The whole experience ended up being life-changing in many ways. Not only was I able to help make a difference to the lives of those in the developing community by working with others, but I personally developed in ways which would not otherwise have been possible and made numerous friends with people stretching from Vancouver to New Zealand in the process.
Our first week was spent at Kathmandu University planning the health needs assessment to be conducted in the rural community. Time was also dedicated to getting to know other members of the group and learning about ‘Leadership’ and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). Three weeks were then spent in the rural community of Dhungkharka.
I was a member of the Oral Health Group which comprised of dentists, oral health therapists, a medic and a nutritionist. We conducted a Health Needs Assessment as a group by conducting semi-structured interviews of members of the community, health care workers, teachers and female healthcare volunteers.
This allowed us to identify the current understandings and needs of the community with regards to oral health. Following the analysis of this data collection, we conducted an intervention specifically tailored to the community to address their needs. We educated children directly in schools, educated the community through Mothers’ Associations, up-skilled healthcare assistants at the local healthcare centres and trained teachers to educate future children. Our intervention focused on prevention and sustainability.
I have never conducted a Health Needs Assessment before and the programme made me appreciate the importance of doing this before an intervention is implemented. This is particularly relevant to me as I have an interest in policymaking and management. This ensures suitability, efficiency and sustainability. For example, the assessment identified that there was minimal exposure to acid in the diets of the community. As a result, the diet aspect of our intervention concentrated more on the heavy sugar exposure as opposed to acid. This would be very different to an intervention in a developed country which has high sugar and acid exposure in diets.
The main product of the whole experience was carrying out the intervention which was tailored to the community. The incorporation of the sustainable aspect of this was particularly remarkable. For example, we recorded and left a video as an educational resource for the teachers so that they would not forget the knowledge we taught them and would be able to train future teachers.
I also appreciated the importance of interprofessional collaboration which can help to provide more holistic care. Our oral health group consisted of a medic, nutritionist, oral health therapists as well as dentists. It was extremely interesting being able to learn about different healthcare systems around the world and the perspectives of other healthcare professions. This has encouraged me to aim to make change to my clinical practice. For example, whereas dentists seem to focus solely on acid and sugar exposure when taking diet histories, the nutrition student highlighted the importance of also looking at intake of fruits, vegetables and the balance of the diet to gain an understanding of exposure to vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies in this can result in oral health as well as general health manifestations. As a result of recognising the importance of this interprofessional learning, I would look to network with and identify professionals from other healthcare disciplines in any area I will be based in the future. This will ensure that I can learn from their disciplines as well as go to them for support if needed when providing more holistic care to patients.
Overall, this experience has without a doubt been the most valuable experience I have ever had. I have been passionate about the UNSDGs since I learnt about them whilst studying Higher Level Geography at International Baccalaureate Level. Although I have been engaged with UNSDG society at university, I have felt somewhat limited in my ability to help make a difference on a large scale. GLP provided me with the ability to help to do this.
What made the experience even more special was learning so much from the community I was in and the healthcare professionals around me. The research skills I developed, the Health Needs Assessment I helped carry out and the intervention I was a part of helped to develop skills directly relatable to dentistry and will help when I apply for graduate positions.