Building dental care capacity in Guinea, West Africa
A group of five dental students from Guinea boarded a plane to Casablanca, Morocco in October 2022. The following year, they were joined by another group. These young dentists form the pilot group of Mercy Ships’ dental education sponsorship program – a new program focused not just on providing care in the here and now but changing surgical systems for good.
Today, these six dentists are spread across the many classrooms of the Université Mohammed VI des Sciences et de la Santé (UM6SS) – Faculté de Médecine Dentaire in Casablanca, Morocco, earning advanced post-graduate degrees in specialisations like orthodontics, prosthodontics, and endodontics. And, just a few years from now, they’ll be back on a plane – this time, bringing their newfound expertise home to Guinea, West Africa where they’ll be ready to pass on their education and transform the face of dental care in their country.
The State of Dental Care in Guinea
Lack of access to affordable, safe dental and surgical care remains a staggering issue in Guinea, like much of sub-Saharan Africa.
“If you really did a true assessment of the dental need, it’s going to be high, whether that’s access to care, whether that’s the cost for dental treatments, whether that is the access to providers, whether they have enough dentists in-country or not,” said David Ugai, Mercy Ships Guinea Country Director.
“In the U.S. we’re used to one dentist per 2,000, or 3,000, or 5,000 people. You go to some African countries, you’re at one dentist per 1 million. You can’t really start talking about dental care being functional and developed and being able to treat the population because you don’t even have a workforce to start that conversation.”
Imagine having a toothache – or worse yet, a growing mass because of a dental infection – and having no options but to wait, in pain, and watch it worsen. It’s a reality that many of these young dentists can imagine all too well, having seen it firsthand in their communities and even their families. For one student in particular, Francois, the experience of watching his mother suffer from untreated tooth pain for years continues to motivate him. “That is why I am in the process of training: to be able to help not just my mother, but other people who have the same problem.”
“Dr. David has instilled in us strength and courage to learn. He made us dream,” said Amadou.”
Beginning a Partnership with Université Gamal Abdel Nasser de Conakry (UGANC)
More than a decade ago, David, a dentist from the U.S., encountered these issues firsthand when volunteering with Mercy Ships in Guinea. In 2018, he returned to Guinea with the Africa Mercy, where he participated in the launch of a new kind of partnership: Mercy Ships’ collaboration with Guinea’s only public dental school at UGANC in Conakry.
“Initially, we just renovated the space. They allowed us to use a room for our normal Mercy Ships dental program. And then, during the field service, the Dean at the time asked if we could incorporate some of the students into our program so they could get some experience in the clinic. That was kind of the birth of how we slowly started engaging with the dental school, started working more specifically with students, and really started forming a true partnership with the university and the dental department,” said David.
When the ship sailed away in 2019, David decided to stay. Four years later, he remains in Guinea as the Mercy Ships Country Director. In this role, he oversees the education and clinical experience of the young dentists that work their way through the university’s dental program. Meanwhile, he has his sights set on a construction project happening next to the existing dental school, a two-floor clinical training building that will more than double the capacity for dental students to study and treat patients.
Investing in Lasting Change
In addition to developing the dental department’s human resources through a new education sponsorship program, Mercy Ships supports a team of medical doctor anaesthetists developing a robust nursing anaesthesia program at the university.
Over the years, David’s worked closely with students as they learn and practice. Along the way, he found himself in a role that goes beyond the teacher. His commitment and belief in his students run deep, earning him the nickname “Papa Dave” by many. He knew his students could reach greater heights and impact more change for their country—they just needed the right opportunity.
The Start of Something New
Because Guinea currently does not have its own specialisation programs for post-graduate dentistry, David proposed a new program that would support these new dentists to receive comprehensive specialty education in Morocco. He connected with one of the leading dental universities in Casablanca, where Mercy Ships received a warm welcome from the Dean of the dental faculty, Professor Ihsane Ben Yahya, who also serves as the President of FDI World Dental Federation. As a passionate advocate for education and the role it plays in the advancement of health systems, she believes strongly that programs like this are the key to seeing lasting change. She’s seen it happen over the last 50 years in her own country – and she believes this same pattern can take place in Guinea, too.
“If we have good health professionals, the level of health of the population will certainly be better,” shared Prof. Ben Yahya. “It’s true that the partnership model that we have with Mercy Ships is unique. This is the first time I have seen this type of partnership for specialists, and I hope this partnership will not stop there.”
For the six dental residents currently enrolled in the program, and the several more to come, the opportunity ahead is priceless. Yet the sacrifice is still great. It has meant travelling far from home and their families for the next four years. Amadou, François, Souleymane, Kaman, and Barry – later joined by Adama – have begun a new chapter of their lives, each one with their eyes focused on the big picture goal.
Looking to the Future
Years from now, they will board a plane back home to West Africa, and step into roles as educators and investors in Guinea at the same university where they first became dentists. They will pass on their knowledge and skills to the next generation of students, enabling Guinea to receive specialised post-graduate dental education in-country for the first time in its history.
Because of the willingness and sacrifice of this group, more students than ever will have opportunities to learn and specialise, right at their fingertips.
And – fast forward another few years – this means a ripple effect of access spilling out across not only Guinea, but neighbouring countries as well. People who once had no option but to wait and suffer from dental issues will be able to receive complex, life-changing, and even lifesaving care in their own communities.
“You very rarely find a group of people like that, that are willing to dedicate and work hard and focus and do whatever is necessary to make big changes in themselves, to make big changes for the school, and also have that understanding that everything they’re doing is going to make a big change for the Guinea dental system,” said David. “I have high hopes.”
This long-term education investment approach isn’t just taking place in one university in Guinea. It mirrors the model of education, training, and advocacy that Mercy Ships implements on board its hospital ships as well as through programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa. At the core of this model is partnership with national healthcare professionals who will eventually take charge of the programs themselves.
“It will change everything. The field of medicine and dentistry is evolving very fast. I think when we get back, we will be able to set up a new team with the potential to move forward,” shared Souleymane, one of the students currently earning his specialisation in prosthetics in Morocco.
Fellow student, Amadou, said that the mentorship they’ve received has made their future impact feel tangible. “Dr. David has instilled in us strength and courage to learn. He made us dream,” said Amadou. “He followed us and still he continues to follow us by giving us advice – it’s like the advice that a father gives to his son. I think that with all the advice that he gives us, we will try to fight. We will fight not just for us, but for Guinea. We will fight to make oral health shine in Guinea and in Africa.”
Mame Sy had no medical aspirations before coming on board the Africa Mercy in 2019, but the love that she experienced on board compelled her to return again and again.
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