Volunteerism – making a difference

Graduating from Dental School or a new practitioner? You will have much to learn as you embark on your career in dentistry, but you can already make a big difference to people’s lives by volunteering with The Australian Dental Health Foundation.


Russell Gordon, Chairman of The Australian Dental Health Foundation in WA, wants  graduates and new practitioners to volunteer. Helping out, even occasionally, via one of the Australian Dental Health Foundation programs can not only make a big difference to the lives of the patients you treat but can provide valuable experiences for you as a practitioner. 

“You are lucky to have chosen dentistry as a way to make your living,” Russell says. “I know you have all worked hard and given up a lot to get there but still you are joining a privileged group in our society.

“As a dentist, you will be given the courtesy title of Doctor, you will make a higher-than-average income and you will join a group of people who engender much greater trust from our society than most other members of the community.”

Russell adds that dentistry is one of the helping professions. “People come to us for help and advice,” he says. “Using our learned knowledge, plus experience, we give them our best advice and if they trust us, we can make our living providing their dental care. Personally, I feel very fortunate to have joined a helping profession.

“I think seeing yourself as a competent and ethical dentist is a satisfying way to spend a working life. I have found that occasionally offering my time and skills in pro bono dentistry has been extremely rewarding in so many ways that far exceed the time devoted. The ADHF focuses on homeless people whose appreciation of your help is enormous as they lack the life skills to navigate the Government services available to them.” 

How can I volunteer?

You might be lucky enough to work at a practice that has a volunteerism culture. If so, you might be able to volunteer your time via a Dental Rescue Day or Adopt a Patient program:

Dental Rescue Days

This is where practice owners offer up their premises on occasions to provide pro bono treatment for homeless or at-risk people brought to their surgery by agencies such as The Salvos and St Vinnies. Usually, treatment is of an emergency nature to treat pain and infection.

Adopt a Patient

Occasionally, a patient presents on a Dental Rescue Day who the practice will decide to adopt to finish off some treatment. Or a practice can offer to take on a patient via an agency to complete a course of treatment pro bono.

St Pat’s Oral Health Clinic

If the practice you work at doesn’t take part in the Dental Rescue Days or Adopt a Patient programs, you can still volunteer at St Pat’s!

St Pat’s provide a wide range of services to the homeless and to those in danger of becoming homeless, with emergency accommodation, food, counselling, a visiting laundry truck and visiting Street Doctor. The ADHF clinic in St Patrick’s Community Support Centre has been running since 2016. It is an excellent facility, with a lot of free equipment provided by A-dec. Henry Schein Halas has provided the clinic with a monthly account to purchase materials and Oceanic Dental lab provide some free lab work. 

“The clinic has proved to be a huge boon to the ADHF’s work,” Russell says. “It provides a venue for volunteers who don’t have their own surgeries and it allows us to do more comprehensive treatment than our one-off Dental Rescue Days. It is an ideal place for people such as new graduates to dip their toes into the volunteer pool, be it regularly or as a one-off when time allows.”

Do I have enough skills to volunteer?

Russell says if you are hesitant, please come along to St Pat’s and sit in on a few sessions. “Get a feel for what we do,” he says. “Please know that if someone comes in and their mouth is a mess, you are not expected to fix everything. Do what you can do confidently and within your capabilities. It does not take long to gain confidence.

“Never underestimate the value of the skills you have learned in Dental School. You can make big changes to people’s lives. Not only is this personally satisfying, but it also reflects well on our whole profession.”

How often will I be required to volunteer?

The great thing about volunteering is that you can choose what fits around your schedule. Some dentists might volunteer occasionally if they have some time off. Others will volunteer regularly (some will volunteer every week). “Whether you do it as a once-off or regularly, every time you volunteer, it’s appreciated,” Russell says.

What difference can I make?

If you have ever doubted the difference even occasional volunteering can make, just a couple of examples from Russell’s volunteering experience will convince you:

“We used to run Dental Rescue Days occasionally at my practice in Rockingham. I remember one patient who was brought down from Guildford. She had a scarf around her neck to disguise a draining sinus on the lower border of her mandible. An OPG showed a reasonable set of teeth with one badly broken down 47. She said pus had been draining down her neck off and on for two years. A very simple extraction enabled me to make an enormous change to her quality of life. You should never underestimate the difference you can make to someone’s life using your skills.”

“Occasionally a patient presents on a Dental Rescue Day who we decide to adopt to finish off some treatment. One of my ADHF patients presented with a mouth full of stumps such that it was difficult to figure out where the pain might be coming from. I did what I could that day and then decided to get her back to complete a clearance and make full dentures. This lady I learned had been living in a tent in the bush with a small community of homeless people for 10 years. This was an area not that far inland from my practice in Rockingham and I was completely ignorant of its existence. She had a problem with alcohol but had decided to make a change and she was over the moon when I offered to give her back her smile. She came back to see me about a year after she had completed treatment. She was with her grandson who she was minding in the school holidays and told me she was now living in a shared house. She was much more confident, and her appearance was so much healthier with clean clothes and make-up, and I could see she was proud of how she had changed her life around. I must say I went home elated because of how I had been able to contribute to her change in circumstances. Much more self-satisfying than even my best fancy CAD CAM generated Zirconia Bridge on a paying patient.”

What’s in it for me?

According to Russell, the experience you get when you volunteer allows you to treat cases you might never see in your work at a public or private practice. “You see dentistry raw,” he explains. “You will see things that I have hardly seen in all of my years in practice because you are seeing people who have fallen through the cracks.”

Russell says the level of appreciation from the patients treated is really heartening, but it’s not only the patients who appreciate our efforts.

“Our colleagues tend to admire us when we volunteer as do our paying patients,” he explains. “Volunteering demonstrates that you do care and that to you, dentistry isn’t just about money. This helps to engender trust from your paying patients.”

How do I sign up or find out more?

If you would like to learn more about the volunteering options available for new graduates, please contact Andrea Paterson, WA State Coordinator, Australian Dental Health Foundation at adminwa@adhf.org.au

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