Preparing for the Mission

Assembling the Volunteer Team – Numbers and Responsibilities

The number of people on the mission team and their expertise must meld well with the clinical and patient education goals of the mission. It is also important to quantify the number of patients and procedures anticipated. Usually dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants and clerical workers are needed. Certain specialists may also be required. Integration of local personnel is valuable, and must be intentionally and sensitively discussed and planned. See Appendix A - "Main Checklist for Oral Healthcare Missions," which provides a primary checklist for the entire mission. In addition, Appendix J - "Oral Care Humanitarian Mission Briefing" helps volunteers organize for the mission.

There must be an on-site local director as well as a volunteer mission coordinator. These two individuals have overall control of the project, including scheduling activities and solving conflicts. Kind and culturally relevant communication is critical to a successful mission, which will require translation for volunteers who do not speak the host or patient language. Missions must help without enabling. Positive missions help people in need without being patronizing and without causing an increased sense of powerlessness. Cultural differences (and a lack of cultural sensitivity) exacerbate this risk. Visiting volunteers and local personnel must work hard to increase the chances of “helping without hurting.” Carefully listening to the dental priorities articulated by the host dental leaders is an important discipline in optimizing the value of the mission.

Background on Mission Site and Local Cultures

The more that is known in advance about the mission site, the better the chance of success. Obtaining a working understanding of the mission area, even with an effort that has been ongoing, can take months of preparation. Language differences, as well as the standard of care it will be possible to provide, may be challenging.

Learn about the people who live where the team will be serving with the hope of understanding their lives, culture and particular mindset. What factors promote health? What factors negatively affect the health of the local population? How does the local population earn a living? What is their diet? What is the current standard of healthcare? What is the level of oral hygiene? What is the climate and geography? What are the common diseases? Are there any current outbreaks of disease? Learn about any political situations that might be going on. Study the needs of the people. If possible, speak with someone who is from the area of the mission site as well as to people who have visited it. Knowledge about the local population and location will help bridge the gap between just being there to serve people dentally and potentially affecting positive changes for the future. See Appendix D - "Patient Medical Review Form."

Local Regulations Concerning the Provision of Dentistry

Care provided by oral health care missions must meet the legal requirements, dental standards and practice guidelines of the host country. Participants in dental missions should be familiar and, at a minimum, comply with the standards of the location where care is provided. It is important to identify what credentials and background are needed for volunteers to legally provide dental care in the location of the mission.

Practicing as a healthcare profession in a foreign country without a license may be illegal. Sometimes a temporary certificate (or registration) to practice is required. Healthcare professionals must comply very carefully with licensure requirements of host nations, who rarely offer exemption simply because the volunteers may be providing free dental care for those in need. Serving under the authority of a licensed national practitioner may be sufficient, but healthcare professionals must be diligent to verify the regulations. Complying with national licensure requirements not only prevents legal complications, but is also a strong symbol of respect for the host nation and the ethical practice of healthcare professions.

How would one obtain the appropriate licenses in the nation in which the volunteer mission is planned? Begin by contacting local national partners. They are usually the people with the greatest interest in assisting and have the greatest insight into negotiating the requirements and procedures for proper licensure with relevant authorities. Such information must be completed in advance and must involve the major local contacts.