On a chilly morning, two days after Thanksgiving, I boarded a flight at Portland International Jetport in a winter jacket and flip-flops. Thirty hours and three flights later, we landed in sunny Phnom Penh, Cambodia ready for an adventure. As a fourth year dental student at UNE, I had the unique opportunity to participate in a pilot program in collaboration with the Department of Dentistry at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Puthisastra (UP) in Phnom Penh. I was accompanied by Lindsey Cunningham, a fellow UNE dental student, Travis Erickson, the Assistant Director of Student Success, and Dr. Kimmes, the Associate Dean of Curriculum Integration and Analytics. A hallmark of UNE’s curriculum is our community-based education and public health program, which places fourth year students in clinics across New England for three-month rotations to enhance and expand students’ knowledge and skills while helping to increase access to care. This pilot was unique because our college is developing an international dental school exchange experience rooted in providing ethical and comprehensive care while developing more culturally-competent dentists.
For two weeks we practiced side-by-side with UP dental students in their university clinic, primarily treating orphaned or underserved children cared for by local NGOs. We completed a comprehensive exam (radiographs, dental charting, and caries risk assessment) for each new patient, formulated a treatment plan, completed a prophy and oral hygiene education, and initiated further treatment as needed. We were fortunate to follow-up with treatment over multiple appointments during the week, developing relationships with our young patients that I didn’t expect to have on a short-term international dental trip. It was amazing to see a child who was initially reluctant of two foreign-looking strangers jump in our dental chairs by their second or third appointment, often giggling away at our attempts at speaking Khmer phrases. If there was treatment needed that extended beyond after our stay, there was continuity of care and follow-up within the UP dental clinic. We also participated in UP’s robust public health outreach program, providing emergent treatment at a prison and preventive services and atraumatic restorative treatment to primary school students through the Healthy Kids Cambodia campaign. These settings complemented the traditional dental school clinic setting and also fit with UNE’s mission of improving access to care.
Our work was directly overseen by UNE and UP dental faculty, allowing us the opportunity to learn new techniques and treatment planning ideas while maintaining the standards of care we practice at the UNE Oral Health Center. This, along with our ability to provide comprehensive care, was essential to our pilot program’s success. While ASDA and the ADA support international dental trips, they provide guidelines for dental and predental students to maintain ethical standards while volunteering. ASDA’s B-8 Policy on Ethical Dental Outreach states that, “Students in U.S. dental schools and predental programs who participate in dental outreach programs (e.g., international service trips, domestic service trips, volunteerism in underserved areas, etc.) are strongly encouraged:
- To adhere to the ASDA Code of Ethics and the ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct
- To be directly supervised by dentists licensed to practice in the United States or by faculty at a U.S. CODA-accredited dental school
- To perform only procedures for which the volunteer has received proper education and training
It is essential to be mindful of the impact of international dental trips and to participate in programs that maintain ethical and culturally sensitive practices. Participants and patients receive maximum benefit when care is delivered comprehensively and without cutting corners.
Ultimately, being immersed in a foreign dental school program truly provided me with a cultural and clinical exchange opportunity rather than just a dental experience in a temporary outreach clinic. UP students and faculty were very eager to discuss treatment plans, show us their instruments and materials, and demonstrate how they performed certain procedures. I left very impressed with UP’s curriculum and the technical skill and resourcefulness of their students. Beyond the clinical benefits, I also returned to the States having learned so much about Cambodian culture, customs, and dental healthcare system. For many of the UP dental students, we were among a handful of international students they really got to know and develop friendships with. This program provided an exceptional example of ethical international dental care and cultural exchange that will continue to shape my future as a dentist. I am excited for students who will have the opportunity to take part in this program in the future.
If you are interested in finding volunteer opportunities abroad, check out the ADA Foundation International Volunteer Opportunities search