Dr Ghassan Radi is founder of Smile Again Dentistry, a dental charity dedicated to improving oral health and well-being across the world. Here, Ghassan talks about the essential work he and his team have been doing in Sierra Leone, West Africa, creating a dental support network that impacts positively on local communities and brings sustainable solutions to long standing dental problems.
I have lived in the UK virtually all my life, since I was about two years old. I qualified from Cardiff Dental School in 1998 and since then I’ve always had an interest over and above general dentistry to go out into the world and help people.
This idea had to take a back seat for a while because of family and professional commitments, but my first opportunity came with a trip to Morocco in 2000 where I helped to screen local children on the outskirts of Agadir. Despite a few return visits, nothing really came of the project. However, it did get people aware of my intentions.
Five years ago, one of my patients, a reverend from Sierra Leone, reached out to me and asked me to join a medical mission to his home country to help with much needed dental care. I was more than happy to go with the team as they travelled to different district hospitals to assist and exchange skills, but what struck me most was there were no dental units or dentists anywhere, even in the hospitals.
After a couple of missions, I was able to establish a template of taking equipment with me and setting up temporary dental units for urgent dental care, namely administering anaesthetic and extracting teeth. It was also a chance to train up local healthcare workers to become dental therapists and run the units once we returned home.
On every mission we take to Sierra Leone, there are certain protocols to follow including meeting highly-respected local ministers and leaders. At first I felt that there wasn’t much interest in what I was doing, but by my third mission I saw a very different approach towards me, as if word had got around that I was actually creating something that was sustainable and would bring long-term benefits.
The general public are always very appreciative of our help because in reality they have nowhere else to turn. It’s all about understanding and working alongside local communities, appreciating different cultures but also benefiting these communities with the least amount of disruption.
The benefits of mobile dentistry
When I started on this venture, along with the homeless campaigns I run in the UK, I thought a mobile dental unit would be essential. I looked at the units available and the NSK Viva Ace mobile dentistry system came across as being very robust, but it was a question of finance which prevented me from buying one outright.
However, NSK UK somehow got to hear about the work I was doing and contacted me to say they were more than happy to support me. They presented me with a Viva Ace and I was told to take it, use it in any way you need and we will service it and keep it running for you. NSK has been extremely generous, also donating a number of NSK handpieces to use which means we can now treat and restore dentition rather than just extract.
The lack of suitable dental equipment was really brought home to me on my third trip to Sierra Leone, before I had the Viva Ace. Some of the adult cases we were seeing were beyond help. There were people walking into the unit with osteonecrosis and advanced stages of septicaemia as there is no infrastructure to support situations like this.
We started to focus on treating children. One case that stayed with me was a young girl with a decayed canine that was causing her great pain. The only treatment I could provide was to extract the tooth which visually was very upsetting for her, but with a mobile unit like the Viva Ace I could have treated and restored the tooth and resolved the issue.
The long term plan
Sierra Leone has a population of around 7 million people in a relatively small country. Our plan is to carry on visiting district hospitals and create a network of dental units across the country staffed with dental therapists that we have trained. Hopefully within the next five years or so we will have enough units so that the majority of the population is less than two hours from accessing dental care.
We are also planning to employ dental health promotors to go around the local schools giving oral health advice. We want to focus on the kids, getting prevention in place as well as early diagnosis and treatment to avoid the life-threatening conditions we have seen which originated from simple tooth decay.
Finally, although it’s still in the fledgling stage, we are liaising with head teachers around the district hospitals where we have established dental units. The idea is they will triage the children and then send pictures of any dental problems back to me in the UK. Using the donations we receive through Smile Again we will then finance them to be seen by our dental officers. The aim is to try and nip these cases in the bud before they become too advanced and therefore untreatable.
Support means so much
I believe that having a company like NSK on board with us is an acknowledgement that we must be doing something worthwhile. The fact that NSK is happy to publicly show support for our projects really does mean a lot and it means we can take the missions a step further.
Ultimately, we are very treatment focused at the moment, but if things go in the right direction we can train more therapists and the prevention side can really take off, and that is where the majority of our efforts will ultimately lie.
Whatever happens in the future, the support from companies like NSK, Dental Directory and Sweden & Martina who have been behind us since the early days will always hold a special place.
To hear Ghassan Radi’s story in full, listen to the podcast here.
To find out more about the work of Smile Again Dentistry or to make a donation, please visit smileagaindentistry.co.uk