The waiting room

30 August, 2010 / business

By his own admission, Ian Wilson didn’t stand out from his fellow graduates in the class of ’87, the year he qualified in dentistry from Edinburgh University.

“I’m an ordinary guy, I wasn’t the best in my class, I wasn’t a high flier,” he said.

But what he has gone on to achieve in the profession can only be described as extraordinary.

That’s because after working for about five years as a dental associate at a number of NHS practices in the UK, Ian travelled to Africa, where his eyes were opened to the impact he could have using his skills in the developing world.

Initially, he volunteered with a Christian mission organisation called Mercy Ships, which takes crews of volunteers to different ports to provide expertise in various fields, including medicine, sanitation, agriculture – and dentistry.

“That was a great opportunity to see what impact I could make personally into the lives of people in the developing world,” said Ian. “That was how the ball got rolling.”

Over the next 10 years, Ian volunteered for dentistry projects across Africa, including Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Kenya, but on his return to the UK, he found himself left with a niggling question mark about the long-term impact his work was having.

“I was wondering what difference at the grassroots level I was making on these communities,” he said. “My photographs looked good, I was coming back with great stories, I’d taken a load of teeth out and done some fillings, but what was going on after I’d left? Invariably I’d always feel there was bit of a vacuum, but I wasn’t sure how to do anything about that.”

Ian’s answer came in a chance encounter with a woman called Andie, who was working on a project to help vulnerable people in rural Tanzania. A year-and-a-half later, they were married and had a shared vision to set up a sustainable charitable project in that country.

“We had relationships here, friendships and good relations with the government in Tanzania, so in 2002 we came back out to establish a new dental clinic for another non-governmental organisation. It was run on a commercial basis, but had the opportunity to reinvest the profits into the local community,” said Ian.

“For the first two years of our contract we did that, but in 2004 we felt that it was better and more productive, in terms of our work with the government and our work with the poor, to develop our own charity.

So in 2004, we established Bridge2Aid (B2A) Tanzania and also the Hope Dental Centre, which is the hub of our operations here.”

Ian and Andie set up the Hope Dental Centre in Mwanza, the second-largest city in Tanzania, which sits on the southern shore of Lake Victoria.

“This is probably the best clinical facility I’ve ever worked in, thanks to the generosity of the dental trade and the profession, which have donated materials and equipment,” said Ian. “We’ve also had great support from our team, including Mark Topley and his wife Jo, who have been with us since 2005.”

All of the profits go towards funding their Bridge2Aid charity’s projects in both

providing dental care to those who either can’t afford it or normally don’t have access to it, as well as to other community development projects.

Ian explained: “We are committed to helping the Maskini community, who are regarded as the ‘untouchables’ of society here, because they may have been affected by leprosy and have some form of physical disability. We’ve been involved in changing the infrastructure, or even the accommodation, where the Maskini have been living.”

The Hope Dental Centre also provides the training base for Tanzanian clinical officers who can take their skills to the rural areas of the country, where three quarters of the population live, but where they have no access to any form of dentistry, or even pain relief.

“All they need is someone who is trained to take their tooth out and get them out of pain,” said Ian. “Not fillings, not expensive stuff that needs expensive equipment, just simple emergency pain relief.

“You and I take it for granted that if we have an emergency, we’ll get an appointment either that day or within the next two or three days. Here in Africa, most people don’t have a phone, they don’t know where the dentist is, they don’t know what their duties are, and they can end up on a journey of maybe two or three days to find a dentist who can just get them out of pain.”

For training, Bridge2Aid relies on volunteer dentists travelling to Tanzania as part of the charity’s Dental Volunteer Programme (DVP).

“Taking part in a DVP is a life-changing experience,” said Ian. “For two weeks – even if it’s only two weeks out of your entire career – you can go and train somebody. That person will always remember where you came from and that you learned their name and you trained them to help their community – you can’t put a value on that.”

Bridge2Aid has trained more than 120 clinical officers in the region. If you consider how many people they then have the potential of providing emergency dentistry to, the numbers are remarkable.

Ian said: “You can’t compare the figures for the UK and the developing world. In the UK, there might be one dentist for every 1,500-2,000 people. In the developing nations of Africa, that ratio is more likely to be one dentist for every 350,000 to 400,000 people.

“The local clinical officers who have attended the training programme can then provide better care for their own communities. Conservatively, that has provided access to dental treatment for somewhere in the realms of 1.5 million people in rural Tanzania.”

Volunteer dentists from the UK pay their own way to Mwanza, and spend six full days working one-to-one with local clinical officers in a rural village environment, although with the weekend free there is always the chance to go on safari nearby.

“The teaching is intensive, but the volunteers are not just here to pull teeth out – they are training people so that when they get back on the plane to go home, they are leaving an investment, sharing their own skills with another clinician in the developing world,” said Ian.

The difference between simply throwing money at a problem and sharing your expertise is huge, he added.

“It’s a valid criticism of charities that they can end up throwing money into a black hole. People rightly want to know that if they give money to charity it’s being used well.

“The programme has answered my questions about leaving a vacuum and we’ve already seen the impact the training has had on the standard and availability of dentistry here.”

Ian’s goal is to reach a point where the Hope Dental Centre and Bridge2Aid are staffed and run entirely by locals.

“Ultimately we’re building a team which one day will carry on the work, without me being here, because I’m not here for ever,” he said.

“You can’t talk about sustainability unless one day you’re willing to hand over to the Tanzanian team and we’re in that process.”

Despite all his other responsibilities, Ian makes sure he still spends three days a week doing dentistry. The rest of his time goes into developing and promoting the charity’s work, and raising awareness of the impact people can make by getting involved.

“I want to be able to look back in 20 or 30 years’ time and have the reunion, see how a small idea mushroomed and people took it on board in their own way, with their own style, and maybe developed a programme which is bigger than what I’m doing,” he reflected.

“That would allow me to sit back and think ‘my goodness, I made a

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