How to Volunteer as a Dentist

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It is common for students to volunteer during their summers before entering final year as part of their electives, but volunteering as part of a gap year or sabbatical is also popular.

There are many different experiences in many different locations out there: from rural village hospitals and schools in Peru, to hospital work in Cambodia, to private clinics in Dubai. You can even do your elective in the UK or choose to shadow at veterinary practices!

Whichever option you may choose, there are lots of ways you can assist those who would really appreciate your expertise.

Me carrying out an extraction on a patient over the watchful eye of my supervisor, Dr Mzee

Electives and working abroad


When I was deciding where to go for my elective, I was overwhelmed by the choices available on sites such as Bridge 2 Aid, Work the World and Dentaid.

A group of friends and I found a company called Zanzibar Placement which runs a 2 week mixed placement of educational visits and screening children in schools.  

A group of children in a Masai village enjoying one of their lessons

Our placement included accommodation, food and travel (excluding our flights) for the 2 weeks of volunteering. There are some packages out there that include flights and you can also change the length of the placement.  
We also got a discounted rate as there was 4 of us in our group: the cost of the placement was around £1000 each plus our flights, which we booked through skyscanner.

The structure of my elective did change however because of the time that we chose to go. We arrived into Zanzibar, a predominantly Islamic region of Tanzania, during the fasting period of Ramadan when all the schools are closed. So in the end, we spent the 2 weeks treating patients in Kivunge village hospital.

The placement broadened my dental experience and my extraction technique was really put to the test! Primarily we carried out extractions, but we also provided fillings (when our portable compressor wasn't playing up), endodontics, dentures and trauma management. 
My friend also helped to deliver a baby on one of our quieter mornings - dentists in Tanzania train with doctors for 3 years so can be called upon in all sorts of medical situations!

Treating patients was very different to what we were used to especially since we were trying to communicate with very basic Swahili.  
The patients were often very scared and in a lot of pain and would try to pull your hand out of their mouth mid treatment. 
To our amazement there wasn't any radiographic facility, even for endodontics and every patient was given antibiotics post treatment. A group of ladies, who were school teachers and all wore matching uniforms, came in complaining of ‘black spots’ between their front teeth. After providing them with hand-mixed GIC fillings, they all expected and insisted upon dawa, the swahili word for medicine. It felt counterintuitive to give antibiotics for this kind of treatment, but our supervisor explained that the women would think that something was wrong if we didn’t.
We acted as both dentist and technician, making a denture from scratch chair side in less than an hour and before going to Africa, I had never seen occlusal calculus!  

All the treatment we provided was free of charge (they would've normally have had to pay) and we had brought toothpaste and brushes to give out so by the end of our second week, there was always a long queue outside our room as word spread of the 'English Doctors'.

These 2 weeks were extremely fulfilling and an incredible experience that reminded me that our profession is a global one which varies not only according to wealth, but to culture as well.  
I would definitely recommend this type of experience not only to students planning their electives but to all dentists no matter what stage their career is at.

And of course you can make the most out of visiting the area of the world you are in - we went on a safari after our placement was over!

Check out my recent blog post with my Top 10 things to do in Tanzania when you're there! Or if you're thinking of volunteering in South East Asia check out my Top 10 things to do over there!

A Masai welcoming dance in Ngorogoro National Park

When I had finally decided where I wanted to go for my elective, I found that there was a lot to organise. Here is a brief checklist I have made that you may find useful:


  • Double check your itinerary - flights, other transport and hotel bookings. Take print outs with you and keep them somewhere safe
  • Passport - or else you're not going anywhere!
  • Insurance - you'll need separate insurance for when you're volunteering (see Dental Protection) and when you'll be travelling. A useful site to find travel insurance is Money Supermarket.
  • Make sure you have the appropriate vaccinations done before flying out and take enough anti-malarials if you require them. See NHS choices for what precautions you may need to take. For my elective in Tanzania I needed a yellow fever vaccination and hepatitis A and typhoid boosters as well as anti-malarials.
  • Organise your visa if you require one - make sure this is a working or volunteer visa not a tourist visa. If you have used a company to organise your elective, they may organise some of this for you.
  • Find out if you need PEP - this is Post-exposure Prophylaxis for HIV. Some placements there will be PEP available if you need it but if you're working in an at risk rural environment you may have to take your own. Your local occupational health should provide you with it but you may have to pay.
  • Ask around for donations of dental equipment and supplies- ask local practices, hospitals and companies such as Glaxosmithkline. Rural hospitals are always grateful for equipment and you can hand out products such as toothbrushes to patients

Electives and education programmes in the UK

Volunteering abroad is very popular but it can be expensive and it isn't the only option.
Some people choose to do their electives in the UK, usually in the form of shadowing with varying degrees of practical experience and commonly in a hospital setting - one of my friends did a maxfax placement. 
You could also try getting in touch with professionals with more unusual interests such as equine or forensic dentists, those who are brave enough to work on Harley Street or one of the dental corporates such as IDH.

There are also other ways to help out in the community. Some dental practices run educational outreach schemes to promote oral health and I was involved in a similar project at dental school.

The project initially just involved arranging visits to schools and after school clubs such as brownies and scouts to teach children about oral health. However, it soon expanded to include lecturing at career events, running workshops at science fairs and promoting oral health at care homes.
We recruited fellow dental students to help run events and raise donations from local dental practices and dental companies such as the DDU, Dental Protection and GlaxoSmithKline.

This shows that you don't have to travel hundreds of miles to a different country in order to share your expertise and help others. You also gain some valuable experience and develop skills which all add to your CV.

Other ways to help

Don't forget there are more conventional ways to help others.

You can always fundraise - sponsored runs or challenges, a bake off, own-clothes days at work, jumble sales, anything you can think of!  

You can also donate equipment and consumables to be sent abroad or you can donate money directly to charities such as Dentaid who help provide the resources for dental care in the developing world.

So what have experience do you have in volunteering or fundraising? Had a particularly fun, interesting or unusual elective? Let me know in the comments section below!

A reminder of sites to visit if you're thinking of volunteering or fundraising

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