Successful National Oral Health Policy Dissemination & Implementation Workshop

Regular readers of the blog will be aware that Malawi’s National Oral Health Policy, created by a Ministry of Health-led Task Force established in February 2020, was launched officially by the Deputy Minister of Health, the Honourable Enock Phale MP, on 14th April 2022.

The National Oral Health Policy launch on 14th April 2022

This was a milestone event for the MalDent Project but, as everyone knows, the true value of a policy lies not in its creation but in its successful implementation. Accordingly, the next step in the process took place on 14th and 15th November 2022 at Duncan Lodge, Lilongwe, where an Oral Health Policy Dissemination and Implementation Workshop was held. The meeting was organised jointly by the Ministry of Health and Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (KUHeS), with input from the University of Glasgow (UofG).

Over 40 delegates attended, including dentists and dental therapists from across all sectors of the profession in Malawi, Lorna Macpherson, Andrew Paterson, Niall Rogerson and myself from the University of Glasgow, Dr Mudhihiri Majambo from the Copperbelt University Dental School in Zambia and Dr Nalumino Sayela from the Levy Mwanawasa Medical University in Lusaka.

Delegates assembled on Day 1 of the workshop

The chairperson for Day 1, Brian Nyasulu from Kasungu District Hospital, opened the proceedings.

Brian Nyasulu, session chair, opened the workshop

The meeting started with a prayer, before delegates introduced themselves briefly.

Brian then asked Dr Martha Chipanda, Oral Health Coordinator at the Ministry of Health, to say a few words. Martha referred to the policy launch in April and stressed the importance of implementation, which had triggered this workshop of managers and other dental professionals from across Malawi. She spoke to the importance of the dental profession ‘owning’ the policy and working together to overcome the many challenges that were faced by oral healthcare in Malawi.

Martha makes her opening comments at the workshop

The context for oral health improvement at a global level was set out by Professor Lorna Macpherson, who is a member of The Lancet Commission on Oral Health team. Lorna was a co-author of a two-part Series of papers in The Lancet that highlighted the huge global health burden of oral diseases and the difficulties caused in tackling the problem because of isolation of oral health from other branches of healthcare. Lorna was able to lay out at first hand the key findings from The Lancet Series, identifying many principles that were directly relevant to implementation of Malawi’s new Oral Health Policy. For those who are interested, the two papers in The Lancet Series can be found here.

Lorna beginning her talk about The Lancet Series on Oral Health

Following Lorna’s excellent presentation on the high-level principles for achieving oral health improvement, Martha took the delegates through the seven key pillars of Malawi’s Oral Health Policy. In her very authentic presentation it was striking that many of the points being made by Martha chimed perfectly with Lorna’s earlier comments. The Policy Task Force had certainly followed, as far as possible, WHO recommendations for the global response to oral health challenges, to ensure that the policy would be in line with current thinking.

One of the main objectives of the workshop was to seek engagement of the delegates with the detail of the policy and, through discussion, to identify the activities that were required for its implementation. All delegates were provided with a copy of the policy, the summary document, paper, pen and water – we were expected to work, not just listen!

Martha laid out the rules of engagement. We were divided into three groups, each of which was allocated two or three of the policy pillars to discuss in detail, then to identify activities that would support progress with implementation. Each group was asked to identify a Leader and a Rapporteur.

Martha explaining the rules for the discussion groups

These were very energetic and spirited discussions which highlighted many challenges but also identified some novel approaches. It was an excellent learning experience for everyone.

A tea-break was very welcome following the first session of group work …

… after which we returned to pick up the discussions both before and immediately after lunch.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Group 3 was ready to report on Pillar 3 (Clinical Dental Practice and Patient Access) and Pillar 4 (Human Resources for Oral Health). Their rapporteur was Dr Nathan Lungu, an Assistant Lecturer at KUHeS who is specialising in Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery.

Nathan Lungu reporting for Group 3

The feedback presentation, as would subsequently be the case for Groups 1 and 2, triggered lively discussion from the floor. The potential for introduction of a task-shifting initiative, through which Medical Assistants in rural areas would be up-skilled to deliver emergency dentistry, proved especially controversial.

Day 2 of the workshop commenced with introductory comments from Dr Martha Chipanda and from Dr Jessie Mlotha- Namarika, Head of the Dental Department at Kamuzu Central Hospital.

Following an opening prayer, the session commenced with a very informative talk by Emma Mathumula from Balaka District Hospital. Her talk was entitled Current Situation of Dental Clinics in Malawi. This excellent presentation highlighted many of the daily challenges in relation to equipment and consumables that are faced by dental staff in public healthcare facilities There is a focus on dental extractions rather than restorative dentistry, but even extractions can be challenging because of inadequate instruments and stock-outs of essential items such as lignocaine.

Subsequently there was a feedback presentation from Group 2, which had considered Pillar 2 (Dental Public Health) and Pillar 7 (Research, Data and Information Management). Very appropriately, the feedback was delivered by Dr Don Chiwaya, an Assistant Lecturers at KUHeS who has chosen to specialise in dental public health.

The morning session concluded with a joint presentation by Andrew Paterson and Martha Chipanda entitled Developing a Network of Oral Health Promoters in Rural Malawi. This ongoing work is a joint activity between the Ministry of Health and the two UK charities Smileawi and Bridge2Aid. The detail has already been described in an earlier post that was guest-edited by Andrew, and relates directly to Pillar 4 of the Policy (Human Resources for Oral Health).

After such an intensive morning, we were all ready for lunch and continuing discussions outside the confines of the conference room:

Lunch al fresco

As lunch came to an end the clouds were beginning to gather and we decided to take a group photo before heading inside for the final session. Sure enough the rain started soon afterwards.

The delegates – all minds focused on implementation!

We still needed to hear from Group 1 following its deliberations about Pillar 1 (Leadership and Governance), Pillar 5 (Oral Health Financing) and Pillar 6 (Infrastructure and Equipment). This was the group in which I had participated and we had worked really hard on these three subject areas. We would have benefitted from more time, but our rapporteur, Wisdom Mkandawire from Blantyre District Hospital, produced an excellent set of feedback slides which summarised clearly the outcomes of our discussions.

Wisdom delivering the outputs from the discussions of Group 1

Finally, Martha summed up the outcomes of the two-day workshop. A summary of the implementation activities suggested by delegates during the group work sessions would be created and circulated to all those present. In addition to local use by dental professionals in the field, it would also provide a valuable tool for discussions with the Ministry of Health and other key stakeholders identified in the Policy document. In fact, the first draft was produced the following day by Wisdom and Brian and passed to Martha for review, so no time has been wasted!

Wisdom and Brian busy drafting the workshop summary document under the watchful eye of Martha!

Martha thanked all present for their participation and the Scottish Government for supporting the workshop through the MalDent Project.

Massive thanks are due to Annie Mwapasa and Madalitso Kaphamtengo who organised the event and were a constant presence over the two days, ensuring that everything ran smoothly.

Big thanks to Annie and Madalitso – great job!

It had been a very busy two days but a great start on the journey of the dental profession towards ‘owning’ its new policy and improving oral health for the citizens of Malawi.

For those of us visiting from Scotland it was a wonderful opportunity to meet such a large number of dental team members from across Malawi and to learn so much about both the challenges and opportunities that exist for the profession and the population. The chance opportunities afforded by face-to-face events such as this cannot be over-stated. I met Tifley Thimba from Salima District Hospital who is not only a dental therapist, but also has a degree in biomedical engineering. Tifley has kindly agreed to work with Stuart Bassham (Dentaid), Chris Cox (Henry Schein) and I on the project we are undertaking to develop training materials on dental equipment maintenance and repair for therapists in the field with poor access to technical support.

Enjoying a fruitful discussion with Tifley – a new recruit to the MalDent Project team!

Lorna had the opportunity to meet with Fred Sambani, the Country Director of Teethsavers International, who will be a very important contact as our workstream on child caries prevention develops:

Fred and Lorna sharing experiences of child oral health improvement programmes

There is much work to do as the MalDent Project progresses, but what was very clear during this workshop was the abundance of talent and enthusiasm among the dental professionals present to take forward the policy implementation. It will require additional, focused investment to ensure that this willing team is able to achieve the ambitions outlined in the Policy, but if that can be provided then the future holds significant promise for success.

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