Challenge, Partnership, and Success: Three Strides of MCW Global’s Leadership in Dentistry

Coincidentally enough, while I was thinking about the intro of the piece Leadership in Dentistry, I underwent teeth cleaning procedure here in Prishtina, the capital city of the Republic of Kosovo.

It is a common, and sometimes unpleasant procedure needed for good oral hygiene.

Depending on where you are living, you might be familiar with this or other dental procedures. However, this might not be the case in Tanzania, where the prevalence of dental caries (cavities) among adults was as high as 76.5%, and nearly two-thirds of children had malocclusion.[1]

This is just a glimpse to understand why oral health care is one of the most crucial programs for MCW Global. MCW’s team works in partnership with their affiliate in Tanzania — Miracle Corners Tanzania (MCT), to improve oral health for all Tanzanians by building health professionals’ capacity to tackle the oral health workforce shortage.

MCW Global achieves more than simply providing services or giving away toothbrushes and toothpaste; the organizations are training local dental professionals and raising awareness in the community.

Challenge, partnership, and success are the keywords used by Dr. Marion Bergman, Volunteer Director, Oral Health Care Projects, and Regina Leichner, Director, Africa Programs, in describing how MCW Global manages to first correctly understand communities’ needs, and then fulfill them.

In this piece, Dr. Bergman and Regina also elaborate on the legacy MCW Global leaves behind, as well as the importance of oral health in achieving its overall mission.

Read about the impact MCW Global has had on individuals and communities living over 6,000 miles away from its New York City headquarters.

The Success in Reestablishing Tanzania’s Sole Dental School

Initially, Dr. Bergman explains that all of their work has been guided by the needs of the leadership in Tanzania while elaborating on the very beginning of this cooperation.

“In 2007, it was His Excellency Former President Kikwete who identified the need to re-establish the country’s one and only dental school — the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences School of Dentistry (MUHAS). Responsible for training dentists for a population of 55 million people, the school was on its last legs and desperately needed a plan to get it back on track. It was the vision of the former President which set the goal for the project — not only to save the school but to establish it as a Regionalal Center of Excellence.”

MCW worked with the leaders at the School of Dentistry and leading Industry Partners to develop a sustainability plan for the school which outlined the work that needed to be done.

The leadership of the School of Dentistry provided insight and contextual knowledge, whereas MCW Global was able to ask questions that challenged the status quo and opened up new ways of looking at the issues.

“This collaborative plan is what informed each phase of our partnership with MUHAS, from the initial refurbishment of all of the school’s clinics to the establishment of a dental laboratory, the implementation of practice management software and digital x-ray, to finally the establishment of a Faculty and Graduate clinic within the school, which is currently being finalized. “

Most importantly, the MUHAS School of Dentistry is not only financially and operationally sustainable.

“It provides high-quality care with state-of-the-art equipment and is the most sought after school among all of the allied sciences, training dental students from across the African continent.”

Leveraging Partnerships to Avoid Challenges and Deepen Impact

These projects did not take place overnight or without challenges.

“When these challenges arose, it was really crucial that we listened to our partners, and moved ahead only when all of the stakeholders were ready. For example, when we did the initial upgrade of all of the clinics of the dental school, we had wanted to equip the school with state-of-the-art digital technology at the time. It was the late Professor Kikwilu who advised us that the school was not yet in a place to maintain the technology. It would take almost another seven years for the school to get to a point they were able to support the technological requirements to go digital. In the end, none of our projects would have worked if they had been done any earlier. “

When it comes to dental outreaches, MCW had a long history of running outreaches in rural areas of Tanzania.

Originally done in partnership with New York University’s (NYU) College of Dentistry, MCW continued the outreaches due to the wide network of dental professionals who were very generous with their time and who wanted to help. MCW helped facilitate their trips, but the impact of this type of work was limited.

To this day, MCW Global conducts outreaches to rural areas where there is a lot of need. In partnership with the Dental Therapy Training Schools in Mbeya and Tanga, final year Dental Therapy Students receive leadership and community oral health training over a two-week period, with a strong focus on practical, hands-on experience working with children in primary schools. With these skills, Dental Therapists go on to conduct outreaches in primary schools and communities after graduation.

“Not only are thousands of children reached each year through the program, but the knowledge and expertise remain with Dental Therapists who will be the ones to ultimately live in these communities. […]”

Bridging the Gap and Empowering Communities

Regina agrees with Dr. Bergman that the key to success is ensuring that the community and leadership are involved in decision-making.

She also shares that one of the things that Dr. Bergman and the MCW team taught her early on when developing projects was to regularly ask “what is our role here?”.

This question, Regina goes on to say, is important to understand that the role of an international NGO is not (or very rarely should be) to directly provide services.

“There are always people in the community who are mandated to provide services and who almost always want to, but there is something in their way preventing it. Rather than provide services directly, it’s important to listen to all of the stakeholders to try to identify what the gap may be and how we as an organization can help to bridge it, without creating a permanent role for ourselves in the equation, but paving the way for the person whose mandate it is to complete the work.”

This is also very much in line with MCW Global’s mission: to empower and prepare leaders to be the ones to lead their community to improved health, education, and economic security.

“Once we are clear about our own role, then it is important to be consistent, open, and honest with all of the stakeholders involved. Managing relationships with communities, institutions or organizations is really just managing relationships with the individuals who make them up, so the key to a healthy relationship with the community is the same as any other relationship.”

Regina believes that as long as there is trust, strong communication, and respect as the foundation, the relationship will be healthy.

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By: Gresë Sermaxhaj

The success and quality of this program may have been impossible, or at the very least more challenging if it were not for the culture of mentoring. Our previous piece Two Stories, One Lesson: MCW Global Builds Meaningful Mentorship Connections highlights the importance of mentorship in MCW Global’s successful work.

[1] MINISTRY OF HEALTH, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, GENDER, ELDERLY, AND CHILDREN THE FIFTH TANZANIA NATIONAL ORAL HEALTH SURVEY REPORT DECEMBER 2020