A medical elective with the MalDent Project: opportunities and reflections

This is a guest post written by Lewis Olsson

Introduction

It is 3rd August 2022 and I am currently on the first of three flights which comprise the return leg of my trip to Malawi. As I write this, I am getting myself as comfortable as possible for almost 24 hours of travel and taking advantage of this free time to provide a contribution to the MalDent Project Blog – a real honour given the fantastic work that has been and is being done by the project.  I probably have not fully processed the wide array of experiences which this adventure has afforded me – but I shall attempt to share and reflect on what I have done and seen over the last four weeks.

Background

My name is Lewis, I am (about to be) a final year medical student at the University of Glasgow, and I am also a dentist, having graduated from the same university in 2016. Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS) and Oral Medicine are two fields in which I am particularly interested. As part of my medical degree there is the option to undertake an elective project in the summer between fourth and fifth year. I have closely followed the MalDent Project over the last few years and have been impressed by the impact that it was having in improving oral health in Malawi. There was clearly momentum and energy behind the project and I felt that there was an opportunity for me to witness the work that was being done first-hand and be involved in some way – in order to satisfy the learning objectives of my medical elective. There were two main elements to my elective: (1) observing and being a part of the OMFS service in Malawi and (2) providing some teaching to the dental students at Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (KUHeS) in line with their curriculum.

Planning started in late 2021 following informal chats with Prof. Bagg and later liaison with Dr. Peter Chimimba and Dr. James Mchenga. Fast forward to early July 2022 and I was sitting on a flight bound for Blantyre, Malawi.

Week One

On arrival I made my way to Kabula Lodge, which was to be my main accommodation for the coming weeks. The busy roads and bustling market stalls flanking the streets made for excellent people-watching as I attempted to quickly adapt to the Malawian way of life. That evening I got myself settled in, making friends with some other residents at Kabula Lodge, and enjoyed the mountainous scenery which made the Lodge such an enjoyable place to stay. I had a day to settle in before clinical duties started on the Monday.

Week one began at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), where the Dental Department and OMFS services are located. I arrived at around 8am and was met by a queue of patients spilling out of the waiting room. I quickly learnt that patients travel from far and wide (often at a significant personal financial cost) in pursuit of dental treatment. A number of dentists and dental therapists make their way through the unrelenting stream of toothaches and abscesses, children and adults, relaxed and anxious patients. In addition to these acute issues, several more complex pathologies also present via the dental clinic. By the end of my first day I had seen more non-malignant tumours of the jaw than I would typically see in a year in Scotland, with these patients destined for the OMFS service. It was impressive to see the way in which the dental staff efficiently manage the large volume of patients, always maintaining a good atmosphere in the department with smiles on their faces.

Other elements of my first week included time in theatre with Dr. Mchenga for elective operations; time discussing the BDS curriculum development; Wednesday morning case presentations and literature discussion with the assistant lecturers; and my provision of an Oral Medicine CPD lecture to a group of local dentists. I also had the pleasure of the company of Dr. Peter Chimimba, Malawi Project Lead of MalDent. Having read many previous blog entries where Dr. Chimimba is a main character, it was great to finally meet. We discussed – amongst other things – his illustrious career and tireless efforts in all dimensions of the MalDent project. He outlined the ongoing efforts to establish a programme for prevention of dental disease in children, based upon Scotland’s Childsmile model, and highlighted the requirement to tailor this to the unique needs and challenges of Malawi.

With Dr Chimimba

A fairly busy week was rounded off by enjoying local cuisine and seeing some animals at a nearby safari reserve. Sunday was spent journeying north to Lilongwe (where the BDS  3 students are based) for the following week’s work. The 5-hour car journey was broken up with a brief break at the famous Chikondi stopover – where I was pleasantly surprised by my first time trying goat meat.

Operating with Dr Mchenga

Week Two

Week two was dedicated to providing OMFS/Oral Surgery/Oral Medicine teaching by way of a symposium which I had mapped against the BDS 3 curriculum, in conjunction with Dr. Mchenga (see timetable of teaching).

 MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
MorningExodontia Principles (lecture)  Basics of OMFS (lecture)Oral Mucosal Lesions (lecture)Exodontia ClinicSuturing Workshop  
AfternoonExodontia Instruments and Technique (phantom head lab)Maxillofacial Examination Skills (lecture and practical)Exodontia Clinic
Timetable of teaching

I felt really privileged to be working with these dental students – they are, after all, trailblazers in being the first cohort to study dentistry in Malawi. As a general rule, dental students are fairly high-achieving people the world over – but as I reflect on the fact that these 10 students were selected in a country with a population of 19 million people, I feel it is important to emphasise that BDS 3 are the crème de la crème.  These enthusiastic individuals were welcoming, engaged and entertaining from the get-go. I found myself constantly impressed: their knowledge for the stage that they are at is excellent and they displayed a mature and conscientious approach to their learning over the course of the week.

Particular highlights of the week for me included the Thursday clinic where nine of the ten students successfully removed their first tooth (with one student beaming when he was the first – definitely one for the history books!). Additionally, the Friday morning suturing workshop was a fun way to conclude the week, with a big thanks to the Glasgow Dental Hospital Oral Surgery department for kindly donating sutures (banana peels provided courtesy of the local market).

Suturing workshop with BDS 3

In addition to my time with the students, I was also invited to provide CPD to the local dentists in Lilongwe. Again, the topic was Oral Medicine, with a quiz to boot and some Scottish prizes for the winning participants. Following this session, we had an insightful discussion about the services and facilities available locally for oral pathology. Furthermore, the dentists expressed their wish for more local in-person CPD events and recognised the importance of being a cohesive workforce in a country where the number of dental professionals is so small.

Local dentists in Lilongwe following a riveting morning of Oral Medicine

Being at a relatively early stage in my career, I feel I benefitted immensely from the opportunity to deliver teaching (both lectures and clinical) and gain feedback from the students, which they helpfully provided. Whilst I was teaching about pathology familiar to me in Scotland, I was able to also pick up some knowledge about pathology that is mostly exclusive to Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, in preparing teaching material I had reason to read the local literature and learn a little about the differing epidemiology of head and neck cancer in Malawi. Furthermore, much of the international literature and educational resources around oral pathology is very Western: clinical images are rarely of black patients – and this proved quite a challenge to sourcing relevant images for teaching purposes. I would suggest that underrepresentation in medical/dental education resources may be an important contributor to health inequalities across different ethnic groups.

BDS 3 at the Lilongwe facility

Overall, my time in Lilongwe was a definite highlight of my trip. I cannot thank the students enough for their engagement with the teaching. Having seen their attitude to learning and to their patients, I came away from Lilongwe knowing that the future of dentistry in Malawi is in good hands.

I returned to Blantyre and spent the weekend unwinding at the excellent Satemwa Tea Plantation with Nelson – a pharmacy lecturer at KUHeS, who recently completed his Masters degree at the University of Glasgow.

Nelson and I enjoying afternoon tea

Week Three

The next week I worked with the OMFS team in Blantyre. I was involved in two acute trauma cases and gained experience of the skillset required to use wire in the reduction and fixation of bony fractures – a technique which is less commonly used in Scotland. On the Wednesday I was involved in the resection and reconstruction of a large mandibular ameloblastoma. It was a lengthy procedure with some equipment limitations, but the operation was successful.

During this week I made the most of the local cuisine, having by this point acquired a taste for nsima – the staple food of any traditional Malawi meal. I visited restaurant Pamudzi (Chichewa for “home”) several times during my trip as it served the best Malawian dishes in Blantyre. It was very popular with local people at lunch and dinner time and near the KUHeS campus and QECH. Food was fresh, delicious, wholesome and very filling!

BBQ chicken, beans, nsima and vegetables

Another weekend of R+R was spent at the stunning Cape Maclear, where I enjoyed a boat trip, delicious freshly caught chambo and some sunshine. Here I met a group of Dutch medical students – we were able to share our stories and experiences from our time so far in the Malawian health service.

Sunset at Cape Maclear (Lake Malawi)

Week Four

My final week in Malawi was again spent with the OMFS team at the QECH. Monday’s list was dedicated to resection and reconstruction of another large mandibular ameloblastoma. This was a 7-hour long procedure and provided a number of learning points – particularly observing the harvest of a rib graft to replace the mandibular condyle and ramus.

Conclusion

There is a plethora of things which I will take away from my elective – some of them will not likely dawn on me till later – but a few have already made their mark.

What really struck me about the OMFS service (with one specialist for the entire country – Dr. Mchenga) is that despite the lack of personnel, equipment and resources, “the job still gets done”. There is adaptation and flexibility in how things are done, which is essential when, for example, a particular screw or instrument is not available. The UK is not considered a resource-poor country, so by witnessing the situation in Malawi I was forced to reflect on just how good the OMFS service back home is. Despite years of financial cuts to healthcare, we have a free system that remains the envy of most nations around the world. By the end of my elective, I felt gratitude for the NHS like never before.

This trip also demonstrated to me the power of involving the right people when delivering a service or developing a project. Malawi is a country which has multiple hurdles and challenges to things such as healthcare provision, foundation of a dental school or implementation of a national oral health strategy. Despite this, a small group of leaders have successfully made inroads in all three of these areas – and this is testament to their skill, commitment and passion to ultimately serve Malawians. I fully expect there were many roadblocks and much frustration in getting to this point, but what I saw was individual flair and collaborative effort at all levels of the system.   

Finally, it would be remiss to not consider the growing problems facing Malawians at present: soaring cost of living, political unrest, and frequent power blackouts to name a few. Yet, despite these, I was made to feel welcome and safe for the duration of my trip.  Certainly living up to its title as “the warm heart of Africa”, Malawi displays many of the best bits of humanity. It was inspiring to see such motivated and skilled healthcare professionals investing their energy and careers into improving the lives of the population. Also, by way of high-quality dental education, the MalDent Project is absolutely sowing the seeds for major improvements in oral health for the country.

I would like to record my thanks to the many people who helped contribute to making my trip to Malawi so worthwhile: Prof. Bagg, Dr. Mchenga, Dr. Chimimba, the local dentists in Blantyre and Lilongwe, BDS 3 students, Nelson Nyoloka, the theatre staff at QECH, Precious (KUHeS driver), and all the patients. I really learnt a lot.

At the end of a long day of operating with Dr. Mchenga

One thought on “A medical elective with the MalDent Project: opportunities and reflections

  1. Thanks so much Lewis for this inspiring report of your four week elective time in Malawi. You have mentioned places, people and life experiences that I am very familiar with. I felt a bit touched and wondered what we need to do as a country on Oral health, particularly with children. Growing up as a teen I faced several dental cases, losing five teeth in the process. I realised later in life that if I was exposed to proper oral health this shouldn’t have happened. It made me think of the little ones who might be going through what I experienced. Poverty and ignorance contribute a lot to dental cases in my country I guess.

    I once met Dr Mchenga and Pro. Chimimba when they introduced me to a sister project to MalDent, Zero Water Day Project. A meeting which made it possible for me to take some few student in Malawi to take part in COP26 last year. I am still hopeful that my meeting with these two hardworking people will leading to a fruitful environmental education program in Malawi some day.

    From this blog I also got inspired to join UNESCO Chair Education and Health. It is my desire to contribute to this global community on issues pertaining to children’s health (dental, among them) and iclussive education.

    We lost the founder of Chikondi Stop over about two or so months a go (MHSRIP). The place is indeed liked by many travelling between Blantyre and Lilongwe. You might have interacted with Gift at QECH, I also know him personally.

    It is my sincere hope that the first cohort, 10 BDS students will go a long way in making a difference in dentistry around here.

    First time to hear of rib harvest for jaw reconstruction. Serves as a tip on how we really have to be oral health wise.

    I am from teaching (Secondary School) background. Now a teacher trainer at Machinga Teachers’ Training College. I may not be very familiar with the terminology used on this blog. I nonetheless learn a lot from it.

    Thanks for sharing. Pay as a visit again, now to chat with youngsters in primary school on oral health.

Leave a Reply to Gillon Bula Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.