Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) students Tien Do DMD 18 and Jeremy Nguyen DMD 18 traveled around Vietnam for three weeks this summer—from May 22 to June 14, 2015—in an effort to distribute much needed oral health supplies and to educate local health professionals working at schools in the country about oral health education. The trip was the part of the student’s participation in the Applied Professional Experience (APEX) program, and was overseen by GSDM’s Office of Global and Population Health (GPH).
Do and Nguyen are the first GSDM students to travel abroad for the APEX program. While fourth year students frequently travel abroad for GPH-sponsored service trips, and exchange programs are active between GSDM and five international schools, students have always completed the APEX program domestically.
Do and Nguyen, who were both born in Vietnam, but spent most of their lives in the United States, came up with the idea to travel to the country for the APEX program, and proposed their idea to Director of Global Initiatives and Assistant Professor in the Department of General Dentistry Dr. Kathleen Held and Professor in the Department of Health Policy & Health Services Research and Associate Dean for Global & Population Health Dr. Michelle Henshaw.
The two secured a donation of about $1,500-worth of dental equipment from Pulpdent—a family owned dental research and manufacturing company—as well as a partnership with the Vietnamese NGO East Meets West, which seeks to improve dental health in the country.
Armed with the donated materials from Pulpdent and the help from East Meets West, Do and Nguyen traveled to Vietnam for three weeks. Their main goal during the trip was to educate health professionals about best practices in oral health at six different schools that worked with East Meets West.
“With our knowledge accumulated from the DMD1 curriculum, we developed an oral health education component to East Meets West’s Thrive Oral Health Program,” Do and Nguyen said in a joint statement. “In addition to learning how their current Oral Health Program was being delivered, we worked as consultants to aid in the technical and educational components of their program.”
Do and Nguyen presented lectures for the health professionals that outlined simple lessons about oral health education. These lectures included an open dialogue at the end in which the health professionals and the two GSDM students could learn from each other.
The students also say they appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with the country that they were born in.
“Vietnam is a place that is very dear to us because we were both born there and spent some of our childhood there as well,” Do and Nguyen said. “However, having spent the majority of our lives in the United States, we have been very detached from the way of life in Vietnam.
When they arrived in Vietnam, Do and Nguyen were assigned a group leader as well as a translator and technology specialist for the trip, to ensure that all the presentations and other activities could run as smoothly as possible.
Upon reflection, the two students say the most important takeaway about the status of oral health education in Vietnam is the fact that health professionals in the country often have no choice, but to stretch resources too thin.
“It was eye opening in the sense that we didn’t realize the scale of kids that we were working with,” said Do. “In the U.S. you are working with 30 kids at most. In Vietnam each class is like 100 kids and a whole school would be 1000 kids.”
Do and Nguyen spent time on their trip working to create systems and plans that would help the nurses and East Meets West deal with this problem of limited resources.
“The stretching of resources diminished the quality of care, and presented many obstacles in implementing an efficient oral health education program,” said Do. “In addition to creating an oral health education plan; we helped EMW create a database to organize their patient health charts.”
Do and Nguyen also observed a difference in educational cultures in Vietnam and the U.S.
“The culture in Vietnam in terms of teacher and student is very defined,” said Do and Nguyen. “Teachers lecture and students are expected to absorb the knowledge. It was a very foreign concept that lesson plans be interactive.”
The two students, however, said their experience at GSDM has taught them about the benefits of interactive education. As such, they did their best to relay the benefits of interactive teaching to the health professionals they were working with.
“We know from our oral health lessons, that the best way to stress learning is to have student interaction,” said Do and Nguyen. “The teachers were very receptive to our way of teaching, but it was still very foreign for them.”
Overall, the two GSDM students say their time in Vietnam was a wonderful experience that proved to be very helpful for their dental education.
“Our work in Vietnam was an experience that broadened our scope of dentistry,” said Do. “We learned what it was like to work in an area with limited resources, and recognized the obstacles that arise in such areas. Moving forward, the lessons learned on this trip will provide invaluable insight for developing future preventative health efforts in similar areas.”