Dentistry on Youth With A Mission Medical Ships – Dr Daniel Sundaresan

Practicing dentistry on a YWAM MS is unforgettable

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From Luke’s Journal Timeless Articles

Photo Youth With A Mission

Practising dentistry whilst living on a boat in rural Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not what most people think of when in the middle of dental school. However, it’s the kind of unique experience that makes dentistry on Youth With A Mission Medical Ships (YWAM MS) unforgettable and almost idyllic.

I first heard about YWAM MS from a Dental Journal in 2016, although YWAM MS has been working in PNG since 2009. It was curiosity more than anything else that led me to my first outreach in 2017. I couldn’t understand how you could practise dentistry on a rocking boat, or how a makeshift clinic could be set up under a mango tree with the entire village as your audience. Initially, I planned to sign up for just one outreach to challenge my comfort zone, but by the end of my first day onboard, I had decided I was coming back.

Dentistry on YWAM – at work. Photo Youth With A Mission

PNG is Australia’s closest international neighbour and home to over 8.5 million people. A majority of the population lives in rural communities separated by difficult terrains and a lack of infrastructure. Consequently, health resources including clinicians, medications and education are scarce. 

In 1997, PNG had just seven dentists.1 For well over twenty years, the country’s only dental school at Port Moresby was closed resulting in a significant shortage of dentists, dental therapists and specialists.2 Since teaching recommenced at the university in 2015, 120 dentists have successfully graduated, although most are concentrated in the capital Port Moresby.1 Large areas of the countryside have either no access to oral care or only limited access in the form of visiting oral health therapists. YWAM MS collaborates with the PNG National Department of Health and works in alignment with the National Health Plan which outlines healthcare to rural regions in the country.

Jungle dentistry setup. Photo Youth With A Mission

The YWAM PNG houses over 130 volunteers including those involved in primary healthcare, optometry, media and hospitality. Everyone on the ship pays their own way, with volunteers serving from a couple of weeks to a few months if not longer. While most volunteers on the ship are from Australia and PNG, some volunteers make the trip from all over the world, including Europe and America.

The ship has a purpose-built dental clinic with four dental chairs. The dental team consists of dental assistants, therapists and dentists, that are made up of a mixture of overseas volunteers as well as locals. Oral health problems resemble those in the wider Asia Pacific and range from dental caries to periodontal disease and oral cancer.3 Treatments offered include minor oral surgery, restorations, periodontal therapy and oral health education. With the ship anchored at a bay, patients are ferried to and from the ship for their dental treatment. For communities that are quite a distance away, a clinic can be set up on land using a portable dental chair. In 2018, I had the opportunity to be part of a patrol team that took a five-hour boat ride up a river and spent three days in a village providing dental care. For many villagers there, it was the first time they had seen a dentist. 

“Every trip has opened a new outworking for me, and I leave every outreach encouraged and refreshed.”

I have been fortunate to have met some amazing people from all over the world – many have personally influenced me and the way I practice dentistry. YWAM MS is non-denominational and my personal highlight has been the Chapel services held every Sunday evening on the sun deck. The opportunity to worship and pray alongside people from all over the world is both special and surprising given how remote the location is. It has had a huge impact on my faith. Every trip has opened a new outworking for me, and I leave every outreach encouraged and refreshed.

Art by Aiden Lee 10yo

I found that the rural PNG communities are very open to talking about their faith and have an expectation that prayer is a part of the healthcare they receive. PNG is a Christian country and was recognized as so by the Parliament a few years ago. Prior to PNG, I have never had the opportunity to see prayer as an integral part of providing healthcare. I was initially taken aback when patients expected a prayer as soon as they sat in the dental chair. These experiences have opened my eyes to the unique opportunities we have as health professionals in living out the Gospel, not only in Papua New Guinea, but around the world as well.

I would recommend an outreach experience to any health professional, but especially to young dentists looking to build skills.


Dr Daniel Sundaresan
Dr Daniel Sundaresan is a Consultant in Special Needs Dentistry at Perth’s Fiona Stanley Hospital, and a Clinical Senior Lecturer at The University of Western Australia. He has been volunteering with YWAM Medical Ships since 2017.

References: 

  1. Crocombe L, Siddiqi M, Kamae G. Oral health in Papua New Guinea. Nature India. 2017(Special Issue):S24-S5. http://doi.org/10.1038/nindia.2017.31
  2. Crocombe L, Siddiqi M, Khan S, Bettiol S, editors. Dental education and care in Papua New Guinea. IADR/AADR/CADR General Session & Exhibition, 2019.
  3. Kelwaip RA, Fose S, Siddiqui M, Molumi CP, Apaio K, Conway DI, et al. Oral cancer in Papua New Guinea: looking back and looking forward. Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology and Oral Radiology. 2020; 130(3): 292-297. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.oooo.2020.06.010

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