Jumping Off the Volunteer Cliff
Francis G. Serio, DMD, MS, MBA
During the past several years, I have crisscrossed the country giving presentations on how to get involved in international volunteer dental projects. By and large, these presentations have been well-attended, with the audience split between those who have volunteer experience and those who would like to get involved but do not know where to start. Those who have volunteer experience with previous international projects are usually either looking for new opportunities or new ideas for their own projects. According to the results of an unpublished survey of practicing dentists that I conducted, 41.9% of the respondents had some international volunteer experience.1 Fully 99.6% of these dentists reported that they had a positive experience, and 98.8% stated that they would recommend this activity to their colleagues. A total of 22% of the respondents indicated that they had their first international volunteer experience during dental school. These data correspond with data from a 2017 survey by Lambert and colleagues, which reported that approximately 22% of dental students had participated in such trips while attending school.2 In 2016, Woodmansey and colleguesshowed that 65% of dental schools offered international experiences-an 11.5% increase from what a similar survey found in 2009.3
To be sure, as a group, dentists are very generous in some visible and some not so visible ways. Countless dentists help their patients by discounting their fees or providing care pro bono. In addition, many dentists provide care for the underserved through Mission of Mercy clinics; Remote Area Medical clinics (www.ramusa.org) or other episodic programs; permanent, free community clinics; and other similar organizations. It is often difficult to quantify the value of these services; however, being able to put a price tag on them would certainly be beneficial to the profession.
When I started the Dominican Dental Mission Project back in 1982, there were few resources upon which new volunteers could draw. That is no longer the case. For those who are interested in getting involved in international volunteering, perhaps the best place to start is the American Dental Association Foundation website (www.adafoundation.org/internationalvolunteer). This site has a plethora of information for novices, including an extensive list of organizations that sponsor both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities. Although some new volunteers are eager to strike out on their own, it is imperative to acquire some initial experience as part of an established, well-organized effort. There is much to learn about how such organizations handle the myriad details involved in the execution of a project and resolve the challenges that inevitably occur.
Most clinicians feel more comfortable starting out with a short-term service project, but for those interested in long-term teaching projects, Health Volunteers Overseas (www.hvousa.org) should be an organization of interest. According to their mission statement, the organization "improves the availability and quality of healthcare through the education, training, and professional development of the health workforce in resource-scarce countries." Currently, Health Volunteers Overseas has oral health projects in Nepal, Haiti, Laos, Tanzania, and Peru. These projects typically involve working with local, professional counterparts, providing continuing education, or working with dental faculty in local dental schools. The Health Volunteers Overseas website also has information that is of general interest to volunteers.
In 2015, I presented a workshop on volunteer dental projects at the 60th annual meeting of the International Collage of Dentists-Europe. The presentation, "International Volunteer Projects - part 1 through 6," is available on YouTube and contains many of the details for which new volunteers are looking. There are numerous other resources available in addition to those mentioned here. The key is to do some homework. Then, when you find an organization or project that excites you and "jump off the cliff," you'll be sure to "land softly."
About the Author
Francis G. Serio, DMD, MS, MBA, is the founder and director of the Dominican Dental Mission Project. He maintains a community-based practice in Bayboro, North Carolina.
1. Woodmansey and Serio, in preparation
2. Lambert RF, Wong CA, Woodmansey KF, et al. A national survey of U.S. dental students' experiences with international service trips. J Dent Ed. 2018;82(4):366-372.
3. Woodmansey KF, Rowland B, Serio FG. Dental student international experience programs: results of 2009 and 2016 surveys of U.S. dental schools. J Dent Ed. 2017;81(2):135-139.