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Building Brighter Smiles In Tonga

16 Nov 2023 10:19 AM | Anonymous

Author: Skye Doyle, DHSV     Featured: Elizabeth Cobbledick, ADOHTA VIC-TAS Member

DHSV has teamed up with Tonga to enhance dental services for the Island nation.

Through the capacity-building Colin Riley Scholarship, we've [DHSV] sponsored oral health professionals to travel to the West Pacific to partner with local providers to improve oral health outcomes for the local communities. Central to the scholarship is the donation of a fully stocked, decommissioned dental van.

Making An Impact

Liz Cobbledick, Oral Health Advisor School Dental Program at DHSV and Stephanie Veal, Dental Assistant, Oral Health Educator and Practice Manager at NCN Health and Royal Flying Doctor Service, were among the first recipients of the scholarship.

The two oral health professionals travelled to Tonga as part of a 10 day scoping tour prior to the official handover of the van.

“We got to spend the week setting it up, stocking it with consumables and equipment, and showing the local staff the key features on how to use it,” Liz said.

“We developed a step-by-step guide with instructions and photographs on how to use all the components to ensure they could operate the van, including wheel stabilisers, power isolation and the dental chair.”

The van also includes a wheelchair lift and an internal hoist.

The Tongan tour focused on fostering partnerships and providing dental expertise. During their visits with local health representatives, Liz and Steph presented on “What it’s like working as a Dental Assistant and Oral Health Therapist in Australia’”. 

“We visited local dental clinics and health centres. It was rewarding to share our knowledge with the dental team through the exchange of experiences and clinical skills.”

The donation of the dental van will make significant inroads when it comes to improving oral health.  

“Dental services are usually provided out of the Dental Department at Vaiola Hospital in Nukualofa, as well as at some community and school-based clinics across the island.

“The donated van will travel to villages and schools that do not have a dental clinic nearby, which will play a key role in ensuring that oral health care is accessible across the island,” said Liz.

The Power Of Partnerships

A central element to participating in the Colin Riley Scholarship is the ability to foster close ties and build enduring relationships.

Beyond the clinical component, scholarship recipients like Liz and Steph are required to meet dignitaries, visit key sites, attend cultural events, and engage with local dental staff and health practitioners to understand how DHSV can partner with oral health teams.

“We attended the Ministry of Health dinner at Liku’alofa where we were joined by the Minister for Health, Dr Saia Piukalu. We enjoyed traditional Tongan dancing, were invited to dinners, and were each presented with gifts and cakes as appreciation of our partnership,” Liz recounted.

“Steph met with the Prime Minister of Tonga and we also met some members of the Royal Family including the Prince and Princesses. We also visited numerous kindergartens, schools and health centres, attended numerous feasts and had the opportunity to enjoy traditional Tongan cuisine.”

The collaboration with local representatives was facilitated in partnership with Rotary West Ballarat, particularly Dr David Goldsmith and John McDonald, who've established strong relationships in the local area over the last 20 years.

Smile, You’re In Tonga

“The absolute highlight of the trip was visiting the MaliMali toothbrushing program at the local schools.” shared Liz.

The Tongan word ‘MaliMali’ translates to ‘smile’ and that’s just what Liz and Steph found themselves doing when they had the opportunity to learn more about the program.

“The MaliMali program has been running for more than 25 years and we drew inspiration from learning about such a well-established initiative, promoting prevention and education. The dental therapists visit each school once a week for toothbrushing and provide a fluoride mouth rinse, while the school staff coordinate it on the other days.

"Seeing 200 or so kids brushing their teeth all together, in perfect synchrony, is a sight I’ll never forget,” said Liz.

A visit to the Dental Department also helped Liz to view Monday morning in a whole new light.

“Each Monday, the 11-chair dental clinic starts the week with a prayer. This included beautiful singing from the staff – it was a really special way to commence our visit.”

Seeing The Sights

In their downtime, Liz and Steph packed in as much sightseeing as possible.

“We travelled around the island and visited all of the main tourist attractions, including the Anahulu freshwater caves and the Ha’amonga stone trilithon. We checked out the blowholes, spent the day at Pangaimotu Island, went swimming in the ocean swimming pool and saw whales off the coast. We loved the warm, sunny weather and fresh coconuts! Island life was great,” said Liz.

Feedback For Future Applicants

Liz offered some warm advice to future applicants:

“I’d encourage everyone who has an open mind, is willing to jump in and have a go, and the ability to be flexible and adventurous to apply!” We’re incredibly grateful to participate in the program and we strongly encourage all colleagues to consider applying for future scholarships."

More About The Scholarship

DHSV established the Colin Riley Scholarship to enable Victorian public oral health professionals to participate in clinical placements and support the delivery of training in the Western Pacific region. The scholarship was developed in honour of a beloved former DHSV colleague, Dr Colin Riley, who devoted his career to improving public oral health.

As part of the Colin Riley Scholarship, three decommissioned dental vans have been donated to Tonga, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands in the names of Colin’s three beloved daughters: Ella, Nicola and Fiona. The scholarship was established to provide 5 years’ support and the mobile dental trucks will provide help where it's needed most.

Work is currently underway to explore bringing staff from the Pacific Islands to Australia.

We’ll [DHSV] share future opportunities to apply for the Colin Riley Scholarship with you.


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