Student Profile: Scarcity of dentists in rural areas ignites interest

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Ayikoru Hilda, UCU School of Medicine Denistry Student (UgandaPartners Photo)

(In 2014, the Uganda Ministry of Health reported only 200 dentists in the entire country. In the same year (the latest available data), more than 51% of Ugandans had dental diseases, and 76% of children under age 5 and 93% of adults reportedly suffered tooth decay. If dentists were distributed geographically equitable throughout Uganda, there would be 1 dentist serving about 175,000 people – a deficit in itself but an even greater problem because Ugandan dentists tend to be located in urban and not rural areas despite the fact that Uganda’s national health policy requires that every district has at least one dentist. The rural community challenge especially hits home for Ayikoru Hilda Diana, a “freshman” student in the Bachelor of Dental Surgery program within the recently opened Uganda Christian University (UCU) School of Medicine.  She’s from the sparsely served area of Arua in Uganda’s northern region. In this interview, Ayikoru Hilda shares her hopes and dreams for the field of dentistry in Uganda.)

By Brendah Ndagire
How did you get drawn to Dental Surgery?
During high school I loved sciences. With my interest and academic proficiency in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, I wanted to go medical school. When I was presented with the opportunity to go to Uganda Christian University’s School of Medicine, I knew that I wanted to study Dental Surgery because I have always found dentists interesting people. Besides, there are few dentists in Uganda. I have always wanted to make an impact in my community, and I thought since there are few dentists in my country and especially in the area where I was born, I would make a better impact in that field.

Apart from the shortage of dentists in Uganda, what challenges have you observed?
The current challenge with dentistry field is that in most cases when some people with a toothache go to a dental clinic in Uganda, a dentist just extracts the tooth. Yet, there is more to being a dentist than just pulling out a tooth. It seems like most dentists here are only taught how to remove a tooth instead of examining different ways they can engage with patients about dental and oral hygiene and treatment.

Hilda, center, with other Dental Surgery students at the UCU Kampala Campus.(UgandaPartners Photo)

Why study at UCU School of Medicine?
There are only two Ugandan universities that have a bachelor’s degree program in Dental Surgery, namely, Makerere University and Uganda Christian University. I chose UCU because I come from a Christian family, and two of my siblings have studied/are still studying at UCU. Beyond that, it is really the integration of a Christian perspective with different classes. For example, this semester, I had three science classes, Anatomy, Biochemistry, Physiology, and humanity classes such as Understanding the New Testament and Old Testament. I love having a christian perspective on issues affecting our daily lives.

In Arua District, where do you see a need for dentists?
There is a lot of need for dentists in the Arua District. I remember every school term, whenever I used to go for a dental check up as a requirement for school entry, I had never seen an actual dentist. For more than 7 years, I had never seen an actual dentist! I also have lived in Fort Portal, Kabarole District, and I never saw a dentist there either. I am saying “actual” because the only thing they knew how to do was a check up and pulling out a tooth. But dentistry goes beyond tooth extraction. And the only time I have seen an actual dentist is in Kampala and neighboring urban areas, where dentist examine the oral conditions of a patient, recommend measures to take to prevent dental diseases and so forth.

Recognizing the challenges and reality of dentists in your community, what do you hope to do differently as a dental surgeon?
I want to primarily teach people about the importance of teeth and oral hygiene. My mother was a midwife, and I used to go with her at the hospital. One day, a woman came and without telling the doctors what problem she had with her tooth, she asked them to remove the tooth. And I thought to myself, “you can’t just remove teeth. Learn about the problem causing the toothache, and find out whether it can be prevented or treated without removing the entire tooth.” As a dentist, the first approach is to teach people about everything regarding teeth and oral hygiene.

(UgandaPartners Photo)

Where do you hope to practice as a dentist?
I would like to work in my home district of Arua because I see the greatest need for dentists there. I hope to work as a dentist, but I also hope to teach dentistry to the people there. I believe working as a dentist in Arua would help people in my community but I also think teaching them would make a greater impact. If I can do both, the better.

What has so far been the most positive aspect of studying at UCU School of Medicine?Professors/lecturers teach to make sure that we excel in our classes. Not many professors/lecturers love to teach. Some teach to fail students but I think our professors really love teaching us. I can see that they really care about us, and about the university’s good reputation.

Who do you look up to as you pursue this journey?
My mother and father have been my inspiration in this field of medicine. My mother was a midwife; she passed away in 2014.  And my father used to be a veterinary doctor.  At UCU, I am inspired by Dr. Albert Kasangaki, the head of dentistry who also studied dental surgery and everything related to oral surgery.

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