CDA Show Report: Volunteer your services

By Rabia Mughal, contributing editor

May 3, 2008 -- ANAHEIM, Calif. - Are you eager to help the needy but flummoxed by the hassles? In a heart-warming session at the California Dental Association (CDA) Spring Scientific Session on Saturday, pediatric dentist Gregory Psaltis, D.D.S., and hygienist Dayna Dayton, R.D.H., of Olympia, Wash., offered practical tips for reaching out a helping hand without causing yourself a headache.

First, said Dr. Psaltis, you don't have to get on an airplane to find the needy. "For those of you who don't like to travel on a rutted toad, or eat food that won't settle in your stomach, try helping locally."

One option: Get involved with your local Gospel Rescue Mission. There are 300 Gospel Rescue Missions in the U.S., and in 2006 they provided more than 240,000 medical and dental visits. These missions rely purely on volunteers to provide dental care.

The missions encourage you to bring your own supplies and let you set your own schedule. Also, patents' from the Gospel rescue Missions are not ultimately your responsibility -- and won't get your pager number.

"So you can help those in need without letting it affect your own practice," Dayton said.

You can get even more local by bringing needy patients into your own office. To avoid the legal liability, you can partner with an existing clinic, where the clinic screens patients, takes down their medical history, and then rents your space for treating them.

"I rented my space for a morning for $100 dollars to a hospital. We supplied all the manpower, equipment, but for those few hours the clinic morphed into that hospital," Dr. Psaltis said.

Another easy way to help a lot: Identify families in your practice who are going through a difficult time and write off their dental bills. Ask them for discretion so other people in the practice won't demand the same favour.

You could also get involved with one of the many mobile dental clinics in multiple cities across the U.S. They are backed by colleges, foundations, and insurance providers. Essentially, they are a dental office on wheels. They rely on volunteers and donated dental supplies. Many offer CE credits for dentists who volunteer. They are good for screenings, cleanings, fluoride treatments, and other minor treatments.

Two program with good reputations are Give Kids a Smile and Project Stretch.

For the more adventurous dentist, there are opportunities to volunteer abroad. Dr. Psaltis suggests the Kikuyu Hospital Dental Clinic in Kikuyu, Kenya, which is often manned by volunteers from Europe. This is a flexible program that allows you to provide care or lecture and is a fairly modern facility.

In Honduras, programs seek to fill the spiritual and material needs of the poor. They focus on anything that is needed -- whether it is a dental clinic, medical care, construction of new health facilities, or drilling wells for fresh water.

If teaching is your passion, Health Volunteers Overseas may be the program for you, Dr. Psaltis said. You can teach at universities in Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Tanzania, and Vietnam. Most teaching commitments are for two weeks.

You can affiliate yourself with an existing program or start your own.

If you don't like any of the existing programs, maybe you'd like to set up one of your own. The two speakers offered key tips for the would-be founder:

  • Find sponsor dentists who will let you use your office so that they will deal with any legal issues.

  • Arrange health department permits. Some health departments, including the one in Mexico, will require you to get a work permit.

  • Get a contact person to send you a letter in the local language that explains the purpose of your visit and the material you are bringing. The customs department needs to make sure you are not bringing in material for resale. Try to leave equipment in the host country so you don't have to keep bringing it back and forth.

  • Document all the work you have done and get signed forms.

  • Volunteer at a place that tugs at your heart or that you have a special affinity to.

  • Identify how you want to help -- whether it is building a new clinic or providing dental treatment.

  • Bring support personnel, such as dental hygienists and assistants.

  • Hire a translator who is fluent in the local language.

  • Ask corporate sponsors for donations. You will be surprised how many contributions you will actually receive for volunteering efforts.

You won't remember the teeth or the decay or the long tiring hours, the experts concluded. You will only remember the lives that you touched and the smiles and hugs from the children whom you helped.

Copyright © 2008

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