Turning challenge to success -Smileawi and friends collaborate on a digital learning oral health initiative for Malawi

Those of you who follow our blog will be very familiar with Nigel and Vicky Milne, who established and direct the charity Smileawi. Their charity is a very close partner of the MalDent Project, as is Bridge2Aid, with whom we collaborate on several fronts.

Enjoying a break in the sun during the Smileawi Dental CPD meeting in Mzuzu, June 2019

I can be lazy in writing this blog post, because Nigel and Vicky have already published their own blog which describes in detail the recent project I would like to highlight. It’s a great read and you can access it here.

The comments I would like to make relate more to the way in which collaboration, joint working and mutual trust continue to play a central role in the efforts we are all making to improve oral health in Malawi.

The original grant awarded to Smileawi from Scottish Government had been to fund a collaboration between themselves, Bridge2Aid and the Dental Association of Malawi on a pilot task-shifting programme to teach Medical Assistants the fundamentals of emergency dentistry. When this was postponed in June 2020 as a result of the pandemic, it became necessary for Smileawi to identify a way in which the funding could be utilised by 31st March 2021 on an alternative project, which would retain relevance to the original concept but would be feasible under COVID-19 restrictions.

Bridge2Aid already had strong connections with a digital dental education platform called ProDental CPD. They were working together on oral health related materials that could be loaded onto smartphones and used in their work with Tanzanian health care workers. During a brain-storming session between Smileawi, Bridge2Aid, the Dental Association of Malawi and the MalDent Project, a concept for a project to produce 12 modules of dental educational materials that would be hosted by ProDentalCPD was hatched. These modules would be provided to Malawian dental therapists who could claim CPD following successful completion. Other details of the final package can be found in Nigel and Vicky’s blog. The proposal for re-configuration was accepted by Scottish Government and on 31st March 2021 the modules were launched.

The following aspects of this project are worthy of note:

  1. As a result of pre-existing collaborations and working relationships established between the various parties involved, it was possible to demonstrate a nimble and agile response to the re-profiling of the original proposal.
  2. This was a true collaboration between the Malawian and UK organisations involved, ensuring that the materials produced were relevant in the Malawian context. The Project Coordinator in Malawi, Dr Martha Chipanda and the Secretary of the Dental Association of Malawi, Dr Wiston Mukiwa, worked tirelessly with the equally industrious UK team to develop and test the educational materials.
  3. Sustainability is at the core of this work, which supports high level ambitions of the MalDent Project in relation to support and development of the oral healthcare workforce.

The list of acknowledgements at the end of Smileawi’s blog demonstrates what a truly collaborative effort this has been. There is now the opportunity to assess these materials in the field, before rolling them out more widely. Both Martha Chipanda and Wiston Mukiwa are members of the Ministry of Health Task Force which is developing an oral health policy for Malawi, and tools such as the one developed in this project have great potential in support of oral health policy implementation. This integration of approach bodes well for the future.

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