Take a seat, check your mirrors, fasten your seat belt and go.
But as we all know, most of the time, journeys are far more complicated and lengthier than that.
When back in 2013, two professional acquaintances met in a tiny office on Valletta Campus to discuss the viability of an idea that occurred to a burgeoning academic, it didn’t seem that easy anyway. It looked more like they were at the bottom of a mountain, and they had little to no tools to climb that mountain. Except a truckload of eagerness, and that is what got them through.
The enthusiasm of Wilfred Kenely, head of the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT), coupled with the zeal of a dentist and Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery, Prof. Nikolai Attard, who felt motivated by the prospect of improving the nation’s oral health, proved to be a strong basis for what eventually materialised into Malta’s first Mobile Dental Health Clinic.
Wilfred’s role was to bring a number of donors on board who would supply the equipment and provide the funds to equip a van with everything needed to go on trips around Malta and collect research data on dental hygiene by offering free dental check-ups to those who are less mobile.
With a crystal clear and convincing pitch, financial support started trickling in – slowly but surely. A substantial sum of money from GSK Malta Ltd, another from Prohealth Ltd and Rahuma International Ltd, in-kind donations in the form of dental equipment by Cherubino Ltd, Suratek Ltd and Bart Enterprises, a handful of private donations, a public donation from the National Lotteries Good Causes Fund, and this was enough to buy the vehicle and the equipment. At the end, the project cost around €130,000 - all donated in cash or in kind.
The next step was to find an engineer who was knowledgeable about vehicles and medical equipment, who would very meticulously put the whole thing together and get it functionally ready. Albert Bonnici devotedly took on the project, and for a whole year, every stretch of free time he had, he spent it in a large warehouse space kindly offered for free as a donation by Express Group, engulfed by a vortex of vehicle parts and surrounded by professional equipment. Over this period of time, the van went from rags to riches, until the time came where RIDT could hand the keys to the University’s Faculty for Dental Surgery for bigger and better things.
And so it was time for the now state-of-the-art van turned clinic, equipped with all the necessary stuff to perform check-ups and even emergency procedures, to set out on the Maltese roads and start collecting valuable data.
From elderly care homes to local council offices, to churches and other places which saw great, sizeable crowds, the van made its way into Maltese villages, and the dentists and dental students, with their smiles and sense of service, paved their way into people’s lives and busy schedules. There are two main types of events where the van makes an appearance; the ongoing weekly tour of towns and villages, and pre-pandemic, planned school activities, local council events and also national events.
A lesser-known fact about the van is that it is also equipped to provide smoking cessation assistance to individuals.
“It’s one of those projects that will always be very close to my heart. Not just for the incredible amount of visibility it got us which enabled us to eventually fund other projects, but for the fact that this noble endeavour of improving the nation’s health was taken far beyond what we could have initially imagined”, Wilfred told Newspoint.
“The fact that we go around every town and village of Malta and Gozo allows us to access people in their own community. All sorts of data are collected – from a medical history, to social and behavioural histories, as well as dental and oral health histories. The data gathered is evidence-based and tutors and students are calibrated. All clients are then informed of their treatment needs and are invited to attend Government services, UM clinics or their private GPs, depending their eligibility to the services”, said Prof. Attard.
But “what really makes the service”, Prof. Attard insists, “are the people running it”. He mentions dedicated driver Mr Adrian Farrugia, for example, who also maintains the vehicle, as he is quite hands-on with troubleshooting vehicle-related issues. “Dental equipment, then, is maintained by dental professionals in line with national guidelines. Dr Anne Marie Agius who is the coordinator for the preventive dentistry and Public Dental Health study units organises the events and literally walks the talk with students through the screening sessions. Dr Gabriella Gatt who was one of the project leaders, coordinates events and preparation of students prior to special events. Again, people make projects. And I’d like to thank everyone involved in this.”
A further layer of dynamism surrounding the Mobile Dental Clinic is that the data gathered from it has inspired a number of other studies, such as the National Oral Health Survey for Children, which has just been concluded, the National Oral Health Survey for Adults, which is still ongoing, a number of BSc projects linking oral health to smoking behaviour, diabetes and nutrition, a PhD project on dental erosion in preschool children, as well as a Gozo survey that eventually led to the establishment of a Gozo teaching clinic. Furthermore Prof Attard indicated that the screening events were also instrumental in identifying conditions that required immediate care in certain instances. Another benefit is that it educates our society that Oral Health is directly linked to General Health and that both aspects go hand in hand and cannot be neglected.
Plenty of promise from a project with humble beginnings – but the prospect of how far the mobile clinic would go in terms of helping improve the nation’s health, even in the tough and challenging times of a pandemic, was all the more amplified when members of the Faculty for Dental Surgery, including students, were asked to assist with the COVID-19 vaccination drive.
It was really a time when, contrary to normal circumstances when dental students would be going about their day attending lectures or practising their profession, the students and staff found themselves on the frontline, where they pitched in to the nation’s vaccination roll-out.
The Ministry for Health, through Mater Dei Hospital, first asked if students would be able to volunteer at Gateway. “Not only did they agree, but within a few hours, they dedicated close to 8 weeks of voluntary work,” Prof. Attard explained. Eventually, these activities extended to different sites, including the weekly Saturday visits to the Aurora Centre in Gozo. He also indicated that even now that the new academic year has started, students will be volunteering with the vaccination programme during the week and also weekends. Prof. Attard commended the students for their ongoing commitment to this national effort.
Academic staff always attend along with students to supervise them and tutor them on their soft skills, medical histories, supporting them with difficult patient scenarios, and so on, always highlighting and underscoring the theme that health is a one-team approach, irrespective of the various professions and disciplines. “It is also a great way of establishing lifelong professional relationships with the students, who tomorrow will be our colleagues and leaders in the profession”, said Prof Attard.
“The idea of using the Mobile Clinic to go into the community was floated to Dr Fearne, and when the time was appropriate for Health, we were approached to embark on the project”, said Prof. Attard, who also emphasised that despite his understandably busy schedule, Minister Fearne still found time to be directly accessible and express his sincere gratitude for their voluntary work.
Although the team was dubious about how successful this effort would be, a few thousand individuals turned up on the first day, giving the team plenty of motivation. So while the Mobile Clinic set off for another journey around Malta, Vaccination Team Coordinators Mr Steve Agius and Mr Jorgen Souness made sure that all services being offered were properly supported, and that the volunteers were taken care of as well.
“A joint effort that saw Malta soar in terms of the highest per capita vaccination rate in Europe, and globally”, Prof. Attard summarised it nicely.
Recently the van was on a well-deserved “break” for a few weeks, with Mr Adrian Farrugia organising the necessary annual maintenance prior to the new academic year. It has now resumed with the Oral Health and smoking cessation services, within the COVID-19 pandemic regulations and directives. Which adventure it will take the team of dentists next is still unclear, but what is sure is that everyone is vying for it to continue on its positive trajectory of going the extra mile to improve the nation’s health.