BRISBANE, Australia: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in Cherbourg, South-East Queensland has been lacking access to a dentist for several years—the closest dental clinic is an hour away and has a waiting list of over two years. In order to provide the indigenous community with vital oral health services, Michael Baker, a final year dental student at Griffith University in Brisbane, and a group of his fellow students visit Cherbourg regularly to run dental clinics at the local health service.

 

HOPE4HEALTH, a non-profit organisation and registered charity founded by Griffith University students in 2006, initiated the volunteer programme for final year dentistry students. The organisation aims to eliminate health inequality and improve health outcomes for local, rural, indigenous and international communities.

Michael Baker, an Indigenous student himself, has been involved in the programme for several years as coordinator. “I have been fortunate enough to gain entry into such a prestigious degree at Griffith,” he said. “I feel as an Indigenous dental student that I need to give back to the community as well.”

Together with a group of fellow dental students, Baker visits the Cherbourg community four times a year to conduct weeklong dental clinics. “It is nice to see that we are making an impact in the community. There is a long way to go but we're taking it in small steps and we will get there,” Baker said. He organises the trips, collects donations from corporations, Griffith University and the Australian Dental Association and takes the mobile clinic on the three-hour drive to Cherbourg. On the latest trip, he took about AU$60,000 worth of dental gear to Cherbourg and his team spent a day setting up four surgery rooms at the local health clinic.

“The program has the potential to see up to 120 patients every trip. We generally see around 100 a trip and try and perform as much treatment as we can on those patients,” Baker said. “Unfortunately the closest dentist for Cherbourg residents is over an hour away in Kingaroy with a waiting list of up to two years, so a lot of the patients we see from Cherbourg have a lot of chronic and acute pain.”

Apart from helping dental patients in need and gaining practical experience, the volunteers have an opportunity to gain greater knowledge of Indigenous communities, such as the one in Cherbourg, which is one of the main goals of HOPE4HEALTH.

Although Baker recently finished university and will soon start working as a registered dentist, he still wants to support the volunteer programme in the future. “I won't come out here as a student in the future, but I will definitely come out as a supervisor so I will still have an active role in this programme as time goes on,” he said. “It's not something I want to give up.”