Jamaican Dental School Graduates Its First Class

Richard Gawel
Photo by Jamaica Information Service.

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Photo by Jamaica Information Service.

Jamaica may be a tropical paradise when you’re on vacation. But it faces many challenges when it comes to oral care. About 150 dentists serve the island’s 2.715 million residents, or one doctor per 17,000 patients. That ratio should begin to improve, however, since the University of Technology College of Oral Health Sciences graduated its first class of 22 dentists last November and continues to train new students.

“The University of Technology’s Class of 2015 DMD graduates have proven themselves to be as qualified, as competent, and as dedicated as any graduate from the United States and Canada,” said Maurice Miles, DDS, a US board member of the US-based Commission on Dental Competency Assessments, who administered the class’s examinations.

Previously, people in Jamaica who wanted to become dentists would have to go abroad to Europe or the United States, often subsidized by the Jamaican government. Yet many of these students would stay in their adopted countries once they were fully trained, simply because the money was better there. The new school was designed to keep more dental students at home.

Gary Glassman, DDS, played a key role in the school’s development. He had been a frequent visitor to Jamaica as a tourist in the early 1990s. Due to his love for the island and its people, and their pressing need for better oral care, he contacted Dr. Irving McKenzie, who was the head of the Jamaica Dental Association’s senior education program at the time, and offered his services as an educator.

“I called him up and I said, ‘How would you like to have a lecture on endodontics?’ He said, ‘Fantastic,’ so I flew into Kingston. I didn’t expect to see that many dentists, but there were, like, 75 of them—almost half of all the dentists on the island. They were seeking knowledge,” said Glassman. “So I gave them my first lecture, and I kept going back every year.”

Later, McKenzie would become the nation’s chief dental officer and began laying the groundwork to open a full-fledged dental school as part of the College of Oral Health Sciences, which already had schools dedicated to dental therapy, dental hygiene, dental laboratory technology, and dental assisting. McKenzie then recruited Glassman, who didn’t even know he was being recruited.

“In 2010, I got an email congratulating me on becoming an adjunct professor at the University of Technology. I immediately called McKenzie up and asked him what it was all about. He said, ‘We want you to come on board. We’re starting the dental school. I know it sounds crazy, but the people of Jamaica really need it badly.’”

Glassman has since served as an adjunct professor and as director of the school’s endodontic program. Other foreign dentists are on the faculty, including specialists in oral surgery and periodontics, and Glassman says their love for the island drives them to teach there. Most of the staff, though, comes from Jamaica itself, with a focus on general practice.

“There’s no specialty program at this particular time. We’re considering it, we’re talking about it, but we want to get a few graduating classes under our belt first. But some of the students have expressed an interest in going abroad, taking specialties,” Glassman said.

Also, Glassman wrote the school’s initial curriculum and provided the lectures and clinical instruction. Plus, he brought thousands of dollars worth of supplies from his own practice and as donations from dental equipment companies.

“The Kerr corporation supplied an incredible amount of equipment. Dentsply Sirona has contributed quite a few motors and other gear. Global Surgical has donated a dental operating microscope,” Glassman said. “Clinical Research Dental and Ultradent have supplied a great amount of consumables as well.” 

All of the gear is being put to good use, too. Since last November, the 22 graduates of the school’s 5-year course have been working in their mandatory one-year internship to complete licensing requirements at government-subsidized clinics around the island. More than 80 clinics have gone unmanned for over a decade, and now these facilities are being rehabilitated and used.

In fact, these students have been providing care at these clinics since their third year of school. More than 200 patients get treatment each day at the school’s clinic, and thousands more have benefitted from more than a hundred health fairs that have been held since the school’s opening, in partnership with organizations such as Great Shape! Inc.

“This is part of our strategic plan to serve Jamaica, which has a serious oral health problem,” said McKenzie. “The public health outreach thrust also provides our students with a full appreciation of the community and the landscape in which they are going to work and enables them to become competent very quickly.”

Periodontal disease and tooth decay are Jamaica’s leading oral health problems. Glassman attributed the rampant decay to the island’s lack of fluoridated water, due to the lack of infrastructure and the poor economy. Instead, many residents get fluoride through salt, which isn’t as effective.

So when the school and clinics first opened, most procedures involved extractions, followed by hygiene, performed by the students under supervision by the faculty. But the clinics also offered oral health education, so patients learned to take better care of their teeth, and progress is being made.

“The first year these students went to these health fairs, they saw more extractions than cleanings,” Glassman said. “Now if you go you do more cleanings than extractions, which means they’re making a difference.”

And while the school plans to continue its service to the community, keeping up with technology remains a challenge. Continuing education for the faculty will be key to staying ahead of the curve, Glassman said, in addition to bringing the latest gear to the school and giving the professors an opportunity to use it.

“I think I’ve exposed the dental students in Jamaica to as much or more of the latest and greatest techniques and technology in endodontics as most American or Canadian schools,” said Glassman. “It’s all about the available continuing education and keeping open minds and moving forward.”

The school is looking for volunteers like Glassman to join the faculty, too—“Educators who don’t mind coming down and not getting paid for it,” Glassman said.

“Everything I do is philanthropic. I don’t get paid for it at all. I spend my own dollar doing it,” said Glassman. “We’re looking for people of like mind, people who can donate their time.”

For more information about the program, contact McKenzie at irving364@yahoo.com or Glassman at gary@rootcanals.ca.

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