Now in its third year of operation, the Mobile Dental Unit continues to improve the oral health of the nation, one locality at a time. We speak to PROFESSOR NIKOLAI ATTARD to find out about the progress of the MDU, and learn the future plans for this innovation in mobile dentistry.
Over the past three years the Mobile Dental Unit, or MDU, has become a frequent visitor to most towns, villages, schools and community events across Malta and Gozo.
Welcoming more than 4,000 patients since 2015 for free dental check-ups and oral health advice, the on-going service provided by the MDU continues to make an impact –not just on the dental hygiene, but also on the general health of the wider Maltese community.
“Doctors tend to forget about the mouth and the repercussions it can have on the overall health of the rest of the body,” explains Professor Attard. “With the help of the MDU, we have been able to effectively put the mouth back into the body.”
Last year, this idea inspired the addition of an anti-smoking initiative that travels alongside the MDU, since smoking has not only a negative effect on oral health but that of the whole body. Run by a team of volunteers headed by Ms Anne Buttigieg, the colourful anti-smoking tent which follows the MDU offers support to those who aspire to quit the habit.
Beyond providing free dental check-ups and advice, the Mobile Dental Unit was also developed with a broader purpose in mind: that of training the next generation of dentists and oral health practitioners, and using it for data collection as part of the National Oral Health Survey.
As such, the MDU is already proving its value. Since dental students at the University of Malta are required to take part in the project as part of their curriculum, the MDU has provided them with a unique opportunity to engage with the community first-hand whilst training.
“The MDU has added a new dimension in terms of teaching dentistry,” Professor Attard continues. “Working in the clinic tends to be an eye-opener for the academic students, as there they learn how to adapt medical jargon into simple dental advice in layman’s terms. The new generation of oral health practitioners will, thanks to the MDU, be more easy-going with the public, which may in turn help to break the barrier of fear that is usually associated with going to the dentist.”
The MDU is also making steady progress as a data collection facility. Following a full summer spent travelling throughout Gozo in 2017, the unit was able to record an arsenal of data about the oral health of the Gozitan community, which will be published as a research document in the science journal ‘Xjenza’ and has been brought to the attention of policymakers.
Meanwhile, Dr Gabriella Gatt was able to use data collected by the clinic to contribute to her thesis on tooth erosion – a resource that, without the MDU, would not otherwise have been available.
However, the data recorded has also indicated that the nation’s oral health still needs to be improved, and so the work of the MDU is far from complete. The Unit plans to continue its weekly visits across Malta and Gozo, with over 40 different sites already booked this year, while also attending large community events in different localities. Furthermore, with the new interest in oral health that the MDU has sparked in the local community, it may also become necessary to purchase an additional MDU vehicle to keep up with demand.
To enable the MDU to travel the length and breadth of the Maltese Islands, the vehicle is given constant repair and maintenance by drivers Adrian Farrugia and Kevin Lupo Camilleri. Speaking of his gratitude for their dedication to the project, Professor Attard said, “Without the abundant patience and tireless efforts of Adrian and Kevin, the MDU simply could not continue. I can’t thank them enough for everything they do to keep us moving!”
Professor Attard also recognises the vital role that RIDT played in the development of the Mobile Dental Unit and in helping to secure the funding for the project.
“By channelling the MDU project through RIDT, the whole process was facilitated – from the first idea to the final result, by supporting business proposals, pursuing funding, and enabling all the funding required to be raised in just two years, which, without the help of RIDT, would have taken me significantly longer to achieve.
“The MDU is yet another example of the importance of community-funded projects, and how corporate collaboration, research and investment can make such a positive impact on society.”
As well as being community-funded, the MDU is also community-operated. Professor Attard concluded, “I wish to thank all the students who actively participate in the MDU and create events themselves, as well as my colleagues, RIDT, the MDU drivers, Anne Buttigieg who tirelessly creates all our pamphlets as well as heading up the anti-smoking initiative, and those who made our Gozo project possible by providing us with logistical support throughout. Ours is a team of hugely dedicated volunteers who selflessly give up their time and energy to enable the Mobile Dental Unit to operate. Their incredible contribution is greatly appreciated.”
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