At the University of Technology’s (UTech) College of Oral Health Sciences in Kingston, I leave Dr. Glassman and Dr. Boksman to enjoy their Jamaican lunch, as they did look hungry (see my previous blog post). It is time to see what the students are up to.
While chatting with the Canadians, we are joined by Dr. Irving McKenzie, who is Chief Dental Officer at the Ministry of Health and also Dean of the College. I ask him how many Jamaicans are studying dentistry. Not many – or, at least, not yet enough, was the answer. He is, however, optimistic; things are not going to stay that way.
The College of Oral Health Sciences at UTech is the only educational institution in Jamaica offering a degree program in dentistry, and the only independent dental college in the English-speaking Caribbean.The curriculum is based on the Canadian system. Courses began in September, 2010 and the first batch of graduates will emerge in November, 2015. Currently, the College has four cohorts of trainee dental surgeons (totaling 120); 100 studying for the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene; 50 students on the Dental Laboratory Technology B.Sc. course; and just ten studying for a Dental Assistant’s Diploma. The latter is rather interesting; Dr. McKenzie explains that ninety per cent of dental assistants have no formal training. They learn on the job, from the dentists they work with. UTech will also be introducing a course for Dental Engineers next year. Those are the technical people who maintain the important equipment that dentists depend on.
There is a desperate need for young trained dentists in Jamaica – especially in the public health system. Dr. McKenzie told me there is a “great shortage” – the Government needs at least eighty dentists. As for other Jamaican tertiary institutions, Dr. McKenzie tells me that Northern Caribbean University has a course for dental hygienists and the University of the West Indies has a dental surgery course as part of its medical program. This is hardly enough to fill the need. The 175 dentists now working in the public health system are getting old – their average age is fifty plus. “New blood” is badly needed.
I walk across to the training room, which is roughly circular. Each cubicle radiates from the center – an economical use of space. Each cubicle was busy with a patient, and at least one student hard at work on him or her. On just one day, the students treated 290 patients free of charge. At an average cost of J$8,000 per patient, if they had to pay, this is well over J$2 million worth of treatment.
I meet 34-year-old Kelvin Bird, President of the Jamaica Association of Dental Surgery Students. He is in his fourth year and will be one of the Class of 2015, the College’s very first graduates. He has a strong interest in endodontics – Dr. Glassman’s area of specialization – and says he would like to spend some time working in the public sector after graduation. “It’s an aging population of dentists there,” he notes, but adds that, of course, private practice is “much more lucrative.”
What sparked Kelvin’s interest in dentistry, I ask him? A newspaper article he read a few years back finally swayed him. “I realized the poor state of dentistry in Jamaica,” he says, “and I was moved by compassion.”
And what of the future of dentistry in Jamaica? In Kelvin’s view, prospects are improving. Although Jamaica has been “the fifteenth worst in the world” in terms of its dentist to patient ratio, he believes things are looking up, with more young dentists in training. He also believes the students have a strong sense of community and service to others. “We do a lot of outreach,” he says, especially in rural areas where access to a dentist is almost out of the question.
Dr. Glassman has inspired Kelvin. “He came for the first time when I was in my second year,” he emphasized.“Since then, I have attended all his lectures – I have not missed any.” He is on the cutting edge of endodontics: “Everything he brings is fresh.” He calls Dr. Glassman a “true pioneer…He doesn’t take no for an answer, either.” Kelvin also seems imbued with this “the sky’s the limit” attitude.
I love people who make things happen. And I look forward to next year’s graduation ceremony for young dentists.
Congratulations to Dr. Glassman, Dr. McKenzie and all the students who are moving Jamaica’s health system into the exciting future.