Our Health Care is Not a Playground

 

When I was at the Sindure dental clinic a few days ago, a 60-year-old woman I’ll call Mina arrived with three family members.  The family had walked an hour and a half from the next ward over because, after trying shamanism and home remedies for Mina’s dental pain, and they heard about Sindure’s dental clinic from neighbors.  All four of them wanted to be seen.

Sindure is our remotest clinic. The clinic assistant Biju has to walk about a quarter mile to fill a bucket of water at public tap for use inside the clinic. When our technician Jagat examined Mina, he found that she needed two teeth extracted but also that she had low blood pressure. A discussion ensued: given Mina’s age, medical history, and low blood pressure, should Jagat perform the extraction? Our office staff had taken a five-hour bumpy private jeep ride to get to Sindure. In the monsoon, it would take this family the better part of a day on public transportation to reach a hospital, where, possibly, the dentist would or wouldn’t be in.  They might or might not be able to return home the same day. The hospital might or might not perform an extraction on a patient with low blood pressure.  In the best case scenario, the cost of transporting the whole family, paying for treatment, and maybe overnighting in the city would be significant.

In the end, Jagat treated Mina with silver diamine fluoride, a noninvasive carries-arrest technique that turns decay black and hard, safely slowing and often halting the disease.  He advised her to return the following week, and if her blood pressure looked better then, he would extract the two teeth. The treatment cost her sixty cents. In all except one or two of Nepal’s hospitals, silver diamine fluoride is not in practice, although in the U.S. it has now been approved by the F.D.A.

Later, we posted the case to our private JOHC clinical page, where all of the rural technicians can discuss case questions with Dr. Bethy and Dr. Keri. What blood pressure is too low?  Does the patient’s age matter?  How do we factor that realistically Mina is extremely unlikely to seek urban care even if we refer her?  What role does patient counseling play?  What other things determine whether such a patient can safely have an extraction done in a rural dental clinic, and how do we progressively bring different levels of care together over time?

What about the grandchild who was with Mina, probably not more than eight, whose access to a hospital is burdensome enough that it only makes sense to go there for emergencies, not simple procedures like silver diamine fluoride or glass ionomer fillings? Why should an eight-year old have to let a disease progress until it’s an expensive emergency in order to be worth caring for, when early intervention can be made accessible?

Mina’s situation is an excellent example of why we are trying to get the national health care system in Nepal to adopt primary dental care in rural health posts and school brushing programs in the education system. It seems kind of obvious, but in fact our approach is very uncommon, even outside of oral health (where there is literally nobody working on a systemic innovation in Nepal).  The majority of rural public health programs we see either focus on a single, one-off hospital with unique resources, or try to please donors by scaling up over whole districts at the expense of rigorously exploring single instances of a model.  By contrast, we’ve added a few rural dental clinics each year and iteratively improved the design and process of creating-community based oral health care. Now we have a strong if imperfect proof of concept to present to policy makers. We think that what we’ve done in eight places like Sindure could be done in all 3500 of Nepal’s health posts, bringing sustainable primary dental care to about 20 million people.

Anita working at her clinic in Katuwachaupari, Parbat

It was last summer in 2016 that we first presented this model to national level policymakers, and our slides immediately struck a hot wire.  The reason is that, although you never knew it, dentistry is an amazingly political topic. This is true even in the U.S., where there’s been a movement to create dental therapists who can provide a limited scope of practice in remote and underserved areas where doctors with $600,000 in student loans will never set up clinics. But who poses the most forceful opposition to dental therapists? Dentists.

Dentists are not the only professionals to oppose what is perceived as the degradation of their trade by mid-level providers with less training, but they are particularly energetic about their turf.  I recently read a Washington Post article that compared the dental lobby in the United States to the gun lobby.  The disagreement is framed as protecting the poor from low-quality treatment, but in practice, the position protects the wealthy from competing investment in effective treatments that could reach people without the ability to pay.  There are a good number of such treatments that have been well-studied and do not require pricey providers with PhDs to administer them.

In dentistry the problem is made even worse by the discipline’s roots as a cosmetic discipline.  Dentists used to be barbers!  Even now, the field is separated from the rest of medicine, with dental students educated outside of medical school. If you’re American, dental insurance is probably an appendage on your main health coverage. Even though medical science has long since understood the importance of oral health in overall health, dentistry remains siloed in its own world with its own rules. Therefore, it is also elitist – yes, I said elitist – because as “bonus” medicine, only those who can afford it get it.

The road back from Sindure…not so easy, even in our jeep!

We’re facing the same situation in Nepal, but the ratios are vastly different. Here, about 80% of the population lacks access to oral health care, and oral disease is one of the most widespread health problems in the country. Dental clinics are exclusively in urban areas, and mostly in the capital, but the majority of the public is dispersed across remote hills. With bazillions of dollars going in to nutrition, maternal health programs, cardiac care and diabetes, all of which are directly related to oral disease, there are almost zero dollars being spent on oral health care…because, even in the year 2017, it is still widely viewed as a cosmetic issue.

Like American dental therapists, our dental technicians provide appropriate, high quality basic dental care in rural areas, but in Nepal that’s almost everywhere.  They also refer to secondary level care, providing an access pathway for people like Mina who, without at least getting a local referral first, would be extremely unlikely to take herself to an urban center for dental medicine.  But when we go to policy makers to promote this model, the dental lobby counters with concerns that dental technicians are poorly trained and won’t stay within their scope of practice.  Which is a real concern when there is no regulation, but is not what our evaluation last winter showed when technicians practice within the structure we’ve created.

Yesterday, Aug 2017, was our second central level advocacy meeting.  This year we were joined by two of our dental technicians, K.P. and Anita, who both work in clinics that received local government funding this year.  They’ve treated thousands of people in their villages.  We were prepared for some heated debate…recently, the Nepal Dental Association shut down a government training in the Basic Package of Oral Care that provides the basis for the work our technicians do.  The topic is currently so frantic that nobody from the government attended our advocacy workshop! So it was just us, some open-minded dental professionals and social workers, and a very strongly opposed contingent of the NDA.

The first two hours of the workshop were very polite.  K.P. and Anita each spoke about their experiences – for example, Anita’s clinic runs on Mondays, and she told a story of an elderly man calling her on a Tuesday asking how he’d make it a week. So she knowledgably instructed him to pick up two medications at the Health Post, and the following Monday extracted the tooth to his great relief.

The push back started cordially, and then came a torrent. “Little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” one young dentist pointed out, telling a story of a minimally-trained provider he had once observed performing a procedure incorrectly. The discussion period morphed into a rapid-fire series of dissenting speeches framed as questions:

How are these “technicians” selected?

You say they get two years of training and supervision. What is this training? What is this supervision? 

You know they will only work for your organization for a while, and then they will leave and go open illegal dental practices. 

Why do you call them technicians? Technicians are people who fix chairs.

One time, I saw a patient with an extracted tooth who turned out to have cancer. What if it’s cancer?

You say the dentists won’t go to rural areas.  I have been to Ruswa, and Dhading, and Humla!  We have all been!  Who are you to say we will not go to rural areas?

Dental students all do internships. We can staff rural dental clinics with interns on temporary rotations.

You’ve spent all this money over the years. Why didn’t you put that money in to setting up one proper referral center with equipment? The dentists will come to it, if you place the setup there. 

Extraction is an invasive technique requiring anesthetic and primary care does not include invasive techniques.  These unqualified imitators are practicing secondary level care.

Somewhere in this deluge of critical questions a most interesting declaration fell out of the sky:

Our health care system is not a playground!

This criticism was aimed at our technicians, and these are all objections we’ve heard before, and we expected them. They frame a convenient, self-referencing argument:

The exclusion of poor people from health care is for their own protection from under-trained hacks.

I was given “three minutes” to respond to a barrage of about forty questions.  Mina crossed my mind, and all I could think of was, our health care system is not a playground.

Indeed.  While we are all here navel gazing, real people are needlessly suffering.  There is a big difference between visiting a place for a day, I pointed out, and sleeping next to someone suffering from pain and fever with an infection, a day’s bus ride from the nearest badly-regulated public hospital that may or may not have a doctor who can treat the problem.

What about the use of resources to build sustainable providers instead of randomly placed dental clinics for imaginary doctors to flock to?  If only there weren’t so many rusting supplies sitting in rural places, waiting for people to come use them.  If only the professional medical lobby put the same effort in to supporting, monitoring, regulating and creating referral systems with community-level providers as it is putting in to obstructing them.  Just think what we could have achieved by now.

Our health care system is not a playground.

Here’s the thing.  Nobody wants your interns, your mission camps, your adventure dental care trekking, your once-a-month community service, your charity. We want dignity. We want providers who are appropriately trained for their settings, who know their communities, who will answer phone calls on Tuesdays, who are there for the long haul and not as a resume builder on their way to something better. We want specialists and we want them in the entire country, for everybody, not in the one community where self-congratulating people established a referral center that, happily, expands their own reach. We want something that can actually be implemented, afforded by the government, where there will be a willing workforce, something that is sustainable.

Our health care system is not a playground.

No, it’s not.  Little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Somebody answer to Mina.

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The JOHC mob-squad on the way to a central level advocacy meeting. Program Director Aamod Shrestha; technicians K.P. Acharya and Anita Subedi; Medical Coordination Officer Rajendra Sapkota.

 

 

Technician Training

Last winter, for the first time ever, we had foreign dentists meet our technicians, supervise them treating patients in the field, and assess their treatment outcomes. This has been an enormous opportunity for us as an organization and for our technicians who are working hard to provide the only dental care in their villages. This week, we had Dr. Keri back for a second training based on findings from last winter.

Our refresher training included two days of classroom work and a one-day treatment camp at a school. Keri covered topics related to infection control, pain diagnosis, pediatric behavior management, informed consent, treatment planning, and charting. Based on the results of our study of treatment outcomes in fillings placed by our technicians, we introduced a new instrument used to prepare a tooth for a restoration.  On day two, we had a few patients come in for practicals, including Aidan and Pascal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On day three, we treated about 100 children and adults with supervision from Keri and from Dr. Kafle from our referral hospital, Kantipur Dental Hospital. This gave the technicians and assistants a whole day to apply the concepts from the classroom training to many different types of patients.  I was worried we might not have enough patients during summer vacation…but that was definitely not a problem.

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Over this last year, I’ve realized how far JOHC has moved in to new territory in the oral health care world in Nepal, and really, in to the health care world generally. I’ve come to appreciate that our technicians are true specialists in low-resource dentistry, with training and institutional support that has allowed them to venture in to realms of sophistication not typically expected of providers serving the rural poor. I’ve always been committed to making sure their scope of practice remains safe and appropriate, and at the same time, I recognize that there’s been far less time and money invested in identifying how safe and how good a service can be when the customers are millions of people who cannot rely on reaching a conventional health care setting. Such questions are asked only from the perspective of established institutions and well-funded people in power; that this leads to widespread, unnecessary suffering for the vulnerable is very obvious.

The other side of the same coin is that it inadequate services can be easily excused because they fit a conventional mold.  While Keri was here, we took time to visit the dental section of the public hospital.  We met some great doctors, many of whom are only one or two steps removed from hospitals or people we work with.  But they are working in an underfunded environment with rusted instruments; we observed numerous breaches of infection control in our short 20 minute visit.  The sanitation and safety measures used in our rural clinics are significantly stronger than those we saw in the dental ward of the hospital, even though we are working in a much simpler setting.  Why?

Something else that’s magical about this newfound opportunity for more training and collaboration is getting to know our field staff better, and as a group.  Our clinic assistants – all women (also, on all of our teams, either the technician or team leader must be female) – are these incredible women who tend to listen quietly and then, with very little fanfare, make everything run smoothly.  Without them our infection control protocol would be hash.  They are always the first people to show up at a training or field program.  Biju is raising four children and managed to complete the rice planting in her fields the day before she made the six hour trip to Pokhara from Sindure with her nine year old in tow.  Renuka and Pabitra are always smiling, never miss a thing, and both have put in long stretches of work without pay while we straighten out agreements with their local governments. Sita is upbeat, diligent and ready to toggle between different roles without being asked.  They are just SO AWESOME.

It was a good week.

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The Art of Not Knowing

 

(Re-posted from my June Newsletter – thanks for bearing with me if you are on my mailing list and are receiving this twice!)

Welcome to the Summer 2017 edition of American in Nepal Doing Dental Care and Other Impossible Pursuits.  This season will feature a number of high profile guests, including my cousin Sara and a return to the set by Dr. Keri the Pediatric Dentist from UConn.

Additionally, we have a nail-biting plot lined up for you.  First of all, last month Nepal held its first local elections in about 20 years.  Why are you biting your nails over this?  Because in working to change the health care system in rural villages in Nepal, the posse of bandits that is Jevaia Foundation spends a great deal of time building relationships with local government leaders, a quest peppered with uncertainty, adventure and drama. Presently, in addition to a fleet of newly elected politicians all over the country, there has been some government restructuring, and now nobody is totally sure about things such as who is in charge of distributing funds that were allocated last fall for stuff like, oh I don’t know…let’s just say rural dental clinics.  So, we literally have no idea what government we’re dealing with on day by day basis, and that’s about 75% of the reason we exist.

On that theme, two weeks ago I gave a short talk at my Williams College Reunion called The Art of Not Knowing (beginning at 29:45).  The other women on this panel were powerful ladies pioneering in the fields of journalism and feminism and are well worth a few minutes of time to listen to.  In my ten minutes, I talked about being a restless college student coming from privilege, women as athletes, and the impact of 9/11 happening my senior year of college as these things relate to my work in Nepal.

Back to other coming attractions.  In July Dr. Keri will be leading a second training for our technicians and clinic assistants, along with – TADA! – our new Medical Coordination Officer, hygienist Rajendra Sapkota.  With Rajendra’s help, we’re going to be strengthening our referral system with city hospitals.  We’re preparing for the launch of just one new clinic this year, in Hansapur, and the rest of 2017-18 will be devoted to revisiting our 8 established clinics, upgrading technician skills and equipment, and going back over the community and school programs in all of those villages.

Keri teaching, winter '16

Keri working with technician Megnath Adhikari last winter

And now it’s time for…a plot twist!  Three weeks ago, I’m in the car when Bishnu calls and tells me that she applied for a visa for Aamaa to come see her graduate from her Master’s program in Information Technology (that’s our Bishnu!).  And somehow, in some inexplicable alignment of cosmic unlikeliness getting turned around and coming out possible instead, Aamaa has scored a five year multiple-entry visa to the United States.  She now has the best visa in the family, and it appears that I when I land back in the US in two months, I will have Aamaa in tow.

[Insert sounds of Laura sitting in her car in the parking lot of Walmart, picturing Aamaa in her apartment in Hartford, yelling, “WHAT IN THE – HOW IS – HOW CAN – TH – WH – I – ” (etc.).]

I can comfortably say that there is not one step of that journey that I can visualize once we get on the bus that leaves Kaski.  Aamaa has never even been to Kathmandu.  The furthest reaches of my mind cannot conjure what she will think of JFK airport.

At my Williams talk, an audience member asked if it is “lonely” to live in the ambiguous territory between two incongruous worlds.  My answer was yes.  But also that I was in that between place before I ever left home: uncomfortable, questioning. This bridging is a rare gift I didn’t earn, but each year, I gain more perspective on the importance of staying uncomfortable, especially if you don’t have to.  Bridging keeps you malleable.  When you have to reconcile competing
worlds, you see how quickly things become stuck, how easily even small power becomes narrow-mindedness and false complacency disguised as expertise or experience.  I have been thinking about this a lot.

In my final blog entry last summer, I wrote about visiting a mosque in Kazakhstan, having been mostly isolated from the news for two months, and how I wondered that the most urgent fixations in one place are completely irrelevant someplace else.  I have the same feeling now as I shift back in to the part of my life where my own obsessions in the U.S. are passing trivialities.  If I stayed in one location, they would become deeper and more rigid.  But I have been given this lucky between.  It is rice-planting season, and we hope the rains will be full.  But we won’t know until the sky breaks, so all we can do is prepare seedlings and roll up our trousers.

Ready for action, y’all.

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P.S. School teachers starting dental programs? Fo’ shizzle.  I would love to hear what all of you out there think about the presentation I gave at UCSF’s Global Oral Health Symposium last March (beginning here at 54:30). It focuses on human rights and uprooting academy-based (*cough, elitist*) approaches to solving health care disparities in developing countries.

Evidence. FINALLY.

 

Sada Shiva Primary, 2004

Sada Shiva Primary, 2004

The very first oral health program I organized with Govinda, at Sada Shiva Primary, was in the spring of 2004.

We launched the Kaski Oral Health Care Project in 2006.  Over the years we’ve gradually refined our approach, added in pieces that address culture and product availability, vastly improved our integration with the government and with schools, and pushed the standard of care in our clinics as best we know how.  We have our own unique sanitation protocol that I put together doing my own research. We’ve learned not to take the status quo for granted, and to seek more information about what is legitimately possible in low-resource settings. We’ve learned to recognize complacency: I’ve had to get comfortable with being told things should be done one way, and then seeing with my own eyes they should be done a different way.  But up until now, we’ve basically been doing this on our own.  We try to do annual medical audits of our clinics with local dentists, but our clinics are, increasingly, unique entities.  As a result, there isn’t really a solid barometer of care in Nepal, because we set our own standards – OR internationally, because, well, we’re in rural Nepal.

In 10 years, I’ve never had foreign dental professionals come to witness, much less rigorously assess the care provided by our clinicians.  For that reason, the most promising part of this whole collaboration was what came this week: clinic audits and evaluation of patients who have had fillings done in our clinics some time in the last eight years.

From a human rights standpoint, this is an incredible opportunity for research.  JOHC technicians are nontraditional health care providers offering a technical form of medicine that is totally absent in rural Nepal.  If we can get hard data showing that their treatments are safe and effective, we have a rigorous foundation for arguing that similar clinics should be incorporated in all 3,000 of Nepal’s health posts.  This kind of data isn’t that easy to get, because you’d have to search pretty far to find other patients who were treated 5 or 7 years ago by rural dental technicians in real, remote contexts, rather than by visiting doctors doing controlled research.  In fact, I don’t where you’d find that at all.

With that in mind, I am thrilled to say that, in addition to visiting four of our clinics to provide general evaluations and technician feedback, Dr. Keri and Dr. Bethy screened over sixty past patients.  Both of them use glass ionomer extensively in their own practices; Keri is a pediatric dentist in Connecticut and Bethy is currently doing a PhD incorporating similar techniques in to schools in Cambodia. So these two ladies are like space aliens from another dimension…they know SO. MANY. THINGS.  We invited the past patients for assessment and then the result was out of our hands.  I was excited and nervous.

Their evaluation focused only on glass ionomer fillings, taking close up photos that show how the treatments have held up.  The fillings were anywhere from a few months to 6 years old.  Here’s the screening in Sarangkot, our longest-running clinic:

 

Bethy and Keri were able to screen past patients in three different locations, documenting outcomes from of three out of six of our technicians. What they found is that these treatments have provided objectively, measurably positive health benefits.

Let’s say that again.

What they found is that our rural dental technicians, who are Nepali people working locally in their own villages to offer the only sustainable rural dental care in Nepal, have provided objectively, measurably positive health benefits for their patients.

In fact, given the conditions in which they are working, they appear to be getting EXCELLENT results.  And with the photo documentation that we have, it will be possible to do a fairly in-depth look at exactly what that means–hopefully, something publishable.

There are also ways these outcomes can be improved, and this process allowed the doctors to pinpoint some very specific methods for how.  For example, our technicians should be provided with additional hand instruments that will allow them to improve the cleaning of the tooth before the filling is placed, so that it will last better.

We did clinic audits and past patient screenings in Bharat Pokhari, Sarangkot, and Salyan.  We also went to see a school seminar in Rupakot.  So over the course of the week, Bethy and Keri got to work intensively with all of our technicians, even if getting to every clinic was not possible.  They gave us feedback on supplies and setup that can continue raising the standard of safety and quality in our clinics, which all use the same supplies, so we can generalize that feedback even to the clinics they weren’t able to reach on this visit. We’ll also be starting a Facebook page for technicians to continue learning from Bethy and Keri.

Every night, we’d come home from one jeep ride or another, and these two would still talking about ideas to support our technicians and strengthen outreach to schools. They just KEPT THINKING OF THINGS, and in the morning I’d wake up to find that they had gone to have coffee, where they were still talking about instruments and procedures and lights and glasses and training videos and possible articles to write.  It was INCREDIBLE.

Also…it was really fun.

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Too Much Good

 

The village of Hansapur is adjacent to Rupakot, one of the villages where we’re nearing the end of our two-year program and preparing to hand over the clinic later this spring.   We’d asked Dr. Madhurima if she would conduct her study on mother/child oral health and nutrition in one of our non-working areas to allow for comparison.  It’s an anecdotal comparison of course, because Hansapur and Puranchaur have many differences besides the presence of JOHC in the health post and schools, but it’s something.

Our morning once again consisted of a bouncy bus ride, singing, and this time an extra jeep carrying some folks from another health agency joining us today.  Partway along, Helen had the img_4824idea to jump in to the back of the jeep, and she was soon joined by our Sindure technician Jagat, our Salyan team leader Nar Bahadur, and me. We bobbed along with the fresh air and hills rolling by and the dust billowing up behind us on the dry winter road.

Since we don’t have a clinic in Hansapur, today’s program was held in a schoolyard.  It was challenging getting this screening day set up because we didn’t already have a network of teachers and an existing relationship with the community to help with turnout. But with the high attendance in Puranchaur, we felt a little less pressure, and just went hoping for the best.

So, like, about 350 people showed up.  It was INSANE.

This was the kind of success that, in Nepalenglish, we call “too much good.” A little less good might have been gooder.  The technicians had no time to pee, and Dr. Bethy and Dr. Keri ended up treating patients all day instead of mentoring, because there were just so many people to get through. When we finished the last patient, it was night time.

But of course the high attendance had a many up sides too.  First it was awesome for Madhurima’s study, which we were concerned about.  And a few hundred people also got treatment and fluoride varnish from local technicians.  We observed that childhood oral disease in Hansapur was significantly worse than in Puranchaur, and while that can’t be attributed off-hand to our school brushing programs and outreach in Puranchaur over the last two years, it doesn’t hurt to know.

But the thing about this day that I most appreciated was that it only took until about 1pm before Nirmala, the local organizer who’d helped us get setup, sat down with Aamod and me and announced that she feels our full program is needed in Hanspaur.

thumb_img_1144_1024This represents a major turn of tides for us. We’ve always had to do a lot of running around to create demand in the villages where we start. Then we keep at it for two years, hoping that at the end, the community and leaders will still be convinced enough to make good on promised long-term funding. We’re now realizing that we’ve developed enough infrastructure to provoke interest by just showing up and doing our stuff.

So our plan from here on out is to start only in villages that pay the technicians locally from day one. January is the month where villages throughout Nepal submit next year’s budget to the district government. For the first time, we’re positioned to invite places like Hansapur to co-invest in health post dental clinics from the start. In other words, this epic day of screening and treatment doubled as a 1-day free trial, and now local officials can sit and decide whether to allocate funds in a long-term solution for which we’ll provide the architecture, training, set-up and supervision–so that it comes out right, reflecting everything we’ve learned in the last 10 years.

Are you keeping up here? That was day three.

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Over the Mountain and Up to the Clinic

 

Yesterday morning all 30 of us piled in to a bus to head out to our first day of screening in Puranchaur. I kept being worried that someone on our field staff would bail out, get a flat tire, have a sick buffalo, or need to attend a last-minute puja at an uncle’s house. But everyone made it on to the bus. And it took very little time before bus songs began, complete with Live Traditional Dance By Dental Technician.

Thank goodness I have 12 years of Race to the Rock under my belt. I knew to have a map of our planned camp flow, and I hoped that, as we’d been assured, the needed chairs and tables were already at the Health Post waiting for us. I’d printed out this camp-layout-2high-tech map for everyone in their welcome packets, and I brought an extra copy of the map with me since I knew most people would leave their welcome packets at the hotel, and this series of actions allowed me to answer most questions in either language from any one of 30+ people with: “Ah. Have a look at the map! Oh that’s okay. I put a copy of the map over there. It will answer all your questions.” Tricky, right?

We are aiming to have 300 mother/child pairs for Madhurima to screen in the next three days. That is a lot of people to mobilize in a rural area where people are busy cutting firewood during this season, and especially when you consider Puranchaur already has weekly dental services available, plus we’ve done outreach in schools already. We’re hoping that will work to our advantage, and that the teachers assigned in each school to run the brushing programs will bring students and mothers. But it’s also exam time, so we knew things would be slow till mid-morning. Once everything was set up, there was that familiar lull…would anything happen?

…Anything?

Then suddenly we looked out and saw this line of primary school kids in their uniforms winding our way over the hills towards us. If this isn’t the cutest thing you’ve seen related to dental care outreach programs in mountainous regions, you have no heart.

I want to explain how we organized this project using a human-rights design, because it seems obvious, but actually, a lot of these details are rarely prioritized. What we care about with JOHC is the development of dignified, sustainable, high-quality health care for rural Nepali people. It was important to me to set up this collaboration in a way that promoted the development of local services, which meant not only studying interventions or issues in the abstract, or providing a transient benefit to participants in a study, but building the manifest capacity of local providers and institutions.

Fortunately, although JOHC is small it is mighty, because we have those providers and are already working with all the schools, the local government, and the local img_4484Health Post in Puranchaur. The involvement of our team leaders and clinic staff in this project was a great development opportunity for them – and therefore the communities they work in – and as long as consciously nurture it, that benefit occurs regardless of the outcome of the research.

We were also able to set up this collaboration as an opportunity to strengthen and test our community relationships. Our preparation involved a great deal of mobilization, largely done by our team leader in Puranchaur, who is himself a local resident. We’ll still be in Puranchaur when the week is over, so we’re accountable and vulnerable to the way in which the program impacts the community and its power structures. Which is as it should be. In short, the project is about Puranchaur and the other villages where our teams work, not about us, and that’s what I care about.

Of course, we still had our breaths held all morning. We had kids, but would we get mothers? But as the day went on, the pace picked up. Things got so packed in the clinic upstairs, where our technicians were providing their usual treatments plus the new fluoride and silver fluoride treatments, that by the second day, we needed to move to a large training hall. On the second day, as word got out, we got even more people – about 140. Bethy and Keri were able to provide intensive oversight to our technicians as they worked; our team leaders were collaborating with the UCal students to conduct surveys, help with dental exams, and provide the same oral health and brushing instruction they do already in their home villages. On the ride home that evening, our team leader Kasev, who had been conducting interviews with mothers, said that many participants referenced the school brushing programs when talking about their health practices.  It was as awesome a day as we’d have dared to hope for.

Tomorrow we are off to Hansapur, a non-working area where we had to apply our best strategies to get the word out.  It’s a great chance to get some anecdotal evaluation of differences between an area where we work, and one where we haven’t yet.  Let’s hope we get as good a response as we did today!

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Fleeced and Ready

 

So we’re in the final countdown before 20 of our field staff and 12 dentists, public health specialists, and students arrive here on Monday night.  As I’ve previously explained, we are trying very hard to steel ourselves against the persistent unraveling of planning that seems to occur despite all efforts to the contrary in this neck of the woods.

This steeling involves checking and rechecking that hundreds of people will show up in rural locations for dental screenings, and that our own field staff will make it here by Monday night (our best hope that everyone will be on img_0886time for the start of training on Tuesday morning…very crafty).  We’ve combed through a detailed inventory of supplies – mind you, none of us are dentists, yet we are in charge of the 2% Chlorhexidine solution – and we still have to shop for 50 teaspoons (don’t ask, this is my life, it’s real).  We found a training hall and a bus for forty people, and there are currently no political strikes or holidays scheduled.  I reviewed the whole thing with Dr. Sokal on skype and drew a layout of our workflow complete with the number of chairs and tables we need.  We booked nine people on one flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and hopefully, the flight will not be cancelled.

So this week it snowed in Connecticut, and with the bad weather, Dr. Discepolo, a pediatric dentist coming from UConn, missed her flight.  Because even Connecticut starts going haywire when Nepal gets involved.  Fortunately, Dr. Discepolo was scheduled to come in a day early, and will be here Monday instead, so we are ALL SET.

Today while Aamod and Gaurab were in Puranchaur meeting with people in the local health ministry about the upcoming project, and visiting primary schools (again) to make sure they’ll be sending mother/child pairs for screening, Muna and I were at the office fielding other essentials.  Among which was printing jackets for everybody, which we need by tomorrow night.  But after the Nepal Health Research Council and the 10-tab spreadsheet of budgets and reservations?  Jackets – no sweat!

We’d picked out a few samples on friday, and Muna called the printing press this morning to ask if we could send photos to inquire which jackets could be silkscreened.  The printer told us he had to physically see them.  So we went to the shop to get the jackets, and while Muna took a taxi to the printer to show them a puffy vest and a fleece, I commandeered basically everyone in the store to help me take 40 more puffy vests out of little stuffing bags so I could check off sizes on a spreadsheet.  Then we finished that and I tried on option two, the fleece number, so I’d know what sizes of those we’d need if the vests didn’t work.

Muna texted: “They said they can’t print on either type.  I am coming back.”

We put everything away again.

Muna returned.  “They told me, even if someone says they can print on this vest or this fleece, don’t let them.  It will be ruined.”  Ok then.  Back to the drawing board.  We tooled around looking for something else that could be printed on.

The store owner came in.  “I can bring this vest to my Son-in-Law,” he announced. “He has a factory, and I’m sure he can print this.”

“But the other printer said–”

“My  Son-in-Law can do it,” the owner declared.  “Even if we have to stay up all night, we will print your jackets by tomorrow evening.”

We considered.  It was decided that I would go with the store owner to visit the son-in-law’s factory to review the case.  But only after lunch.  The store owner had not eaten since early in the day.

Muna returned to the office to call all 20 of our field staff, again, to remind them when and where to appear tomorrow night, and I took my computer next door to the jacket shop to work on a Welcome Packet during lunch.  (I say it’s Welcome Packet, but in point of fact, I think I just need the list of 40 participants and the screening layout and the schedule where I can see it at all times.  It’s for me, forty times.)  After lunch, the store owner pulled up in a car and took me to his son in law’s factory.  We presented the vest option and the fleece option.  The vest proved unprintable, but the fleece was a definite.  Definitely a definite doable printing job.  I poked my head in to the “factory,” which was, in top Nepali style, basically a living room.

“I will take you to the printing shop to arrange the logos on the computer,” said the Son-in-Law. “We have to wait for my colleague to go ahead on his bicycle.”  Courteously, we waited for the colleague to get a ways ahead on the bicycle, and then we caught up on a motorbike.

We entered the printing shop and presented a sketch of the layout to be arranged for the jacket.

“Yes, I have this pattern,” said the printer.   He pulled up our jacket on his computer.  “This, right?”

Me: “…?”

“The young woman was in here earlier,” he explained.

I texted Muna.  “I’m back at the same printer you took the sample to this morning.”

Muna: “WHAT?  They said they couldn’t do it.”

Me: “…? …I know, right?”

It takes about an hour an a half to arrange the logos, mainly because one of our visiting dentists teaches for a Cambodian University, and their logo has Khmer lettering that won’t come out right.  The printer guy painstakingly recreates each picture of the Khmer lettering in the logo for the Cambodian University.  He arranges all the pieces of the printing for our jacket and prints it out on laminate.  The son in law comes back and gets me and the laminate on his bike.  He deposits me on the main road so I can take a bus back to the store to get the rest of the jackets out while he prints a sample at the “factory.” I seriously have no idea how this day would have turned out if not for the shop owner and his son-in-law, who basically saved our butts.

It’s now 4pm.  I take out my spreadsheet again.  The entire staff of the store that Muna and I entered at 11:30am today begins taking out fleece jackets from various unpredictable locations.  Fleece jackets appear from every heap and rack of mountain-wear, and they are sorted in to piles while I read from my spreadsheet, again.  Everyone is concerned that the men are not to wear hot pink fleece jackets, and this must be accounted for.  The floor is is covered in fleece jackets.

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I leave for an hour and a half to go do an interview with a local paper, and come back at 8pm.  The son in law has brought a sample jacket with him.  The only problem with it is that the whole thing is too high, and the hood falls over the printing.  Also, while putting the print on, they accidentally melted off one of the drawstrings at the hood and pressed it in to the shoulder of the jacket.  This too must be corrected.  They promise not to melt any parts of any of the other 39 jackets, which I send off in 4 oversize plastic bags.

At 8:45pm I head home for dinner.  Among the things I did not do as planned today: write a training schedule; print referral tickets; send an abstract to UCSF.

Why are you so late? Bhinaju asks.

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Meticulous Serendipity

I’m already in the last week of my visit, and as usual things have flown by too fast.  This monsoon has been more spirited than last year’s, blanketing us in torrential downpours every night and through each morning.  Finally this week the weather seems to have calmed down, but I’m missing the cool and comforting feeling of the rain closing us in with its clattering and clanging.

The main focus of our summer has been a new foray into the world of health care advocacy.  We have a model for rural dental medicine, and we want Nepal’s government to fund dental clinics in all of its village Health Posts.  Our idea is that if the government would set a standard at which it will finance rural dental services in the national health care system, then the global development industry will start doing what we’ve doing: training, mentoring, supervising and auditing rural dental technicians so they meet the standard (which we can help define).  As far as I know, we’re the only organization in Nepal working on this particular topic in this way.

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Salyan Dental Clinic at the Salyan Health Post

Like many developing world countries, there’s a complicated and often mutually distrustful relationship between the aid sector and the government of Nepal.  This largely results in aid agencies privatizing their projects as much as possible; I’ve done this myself, because it’s easier to just do something right yourself than manage a hassle of hectic and sometimes exploitative bureaucracy.  Mean time, weak governments spin out more and more self-serving regulations against a flood of foreign funding that is trying to silo itself.  Ultimately, it’s development itself that suffers, as decades-old aid industries, still chasing down base level poverty, make apparent.  So something that excites me about what we’re doing now is that, setting aside dental medicine itself, I see the process we’re in, if it works, as a strong example of effective collaboration between the private sector, which is great at risk-taking, innovation, and raising money, and a developing-world government, which, at least in Nepal, is by far the best option for scale and stability. I like to think this is a version of life where we all do what we’re good at, with respect for the reality that we need everybody if we’re going to think big and get somewhere.

Now then.  Should you choose to work on rights-based health care policy in the developing world, which you might have been considering, here is your primer on how to get started (after refining your particular service of choice for 10 years).

Our advocacy happens at three levels, beginning with the village level, where we’ve been pushing for permanent local government funding.  This is not for the faint of heart and best suited for people with a good sense of humor.  You’d better be down for a ride that’s 90% culture and 10% policy, and heavily focused on navigating relationships, social dynamics, and weather.  The village level is where we’ve focused most in the past, so we’re reasonably adept at this…except that the reality is that institutional services just aren’t very stable at this level.

Next is the district government, where we’ve previously had only very simplistic coordination, such as required letters to required people.  But it’s the district government that sanctions and distributes village budgets, so without support here, it’s a lot harder to get anywhere at the local level. The other day we had a District Coordination Meeting where our program director and I presented (in Nepali!) on the role of the government in extending our oral health care model to its predominately rural population, filling a gaping hole in the primary health care system. This meeting exceeded our expectations – we received a lot of positive feedback and useful criticism.  I was lavishly complemented, of course, on my village accent.

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Lastly, the day before I leave Nepal, we’ll have our first workshop at the central level in Kathmandu, and with this, we’re leaping in to completely new territory.  But this is ultimately where it’s at: it’s the central government that fixes funding priorities and distributes earmarked budgets through the national health care system.  Recognition of our model at this level would set up a standardized place for rural technicians in Health Posts, providing a framework for agencies with a lot more money to invest in creating rural dental technicians who can then be permanently staffed by Nepal’s own government.

We’re feeling emboldened and encouraged after learning a lot from each and every meeting we’ve had so far.  Despite my own resistance in the past to clunky public systems, at this stage of the game, I’m finding some of the cumbersome government procedures to be oddly reassuring.  They give us steps to take.  We’ve met some very decent and hardworking public officials over the summer, even if they receive us with skepticism and give us some hard knocks. I think this has actually grown our confidence.  We can wait for the meetings, answer the questions, submit the documents, do all the things, because we have confidence in our product.  There’s also the humbling reality that the government has plenty of reasons to be cynical of the social work sector, so if we have to prove ourselves, that’s fair.  It’s forcing us to be both meticulous and more adaptable…eventually, we’re responsible for creating our own good luck.

Besides that, rice planting season concludes with a wonderful festival where everyone puts on green bangles and paints their hands with henna.  Kaskikot’s premier henna-drawer has become none other than yours truly.  What did you expect with an activity where people let you doodle on them with temporarily-staining plants?!  Govinda’s porch had an hour long wait for these skillz on Saun 1.

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The best thing about the henna designs is that you start with an idea, and then it becomes a meditation that designs itself, following a pattern in the creases and borders of someone’s palm, incorporating smudges and wayward marks in to unexpected flowers and vines.  You just can’t say before you start exactly what you’re gonna make.

Doodle doodle doodle…

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Getting Schooled in Vendor Outreach

 

The only question I get asked more often than if we need dentists (answer: YES! as mentors and teachers for Nepali technicians) is if we need donations of toothbrushes or paste. While that’s a conservative yes, because we provide a limited number of those supplies to schools, most of the time, the answer is, not really, unless they are donations of something purchasable in Nepal. Because, if you think about it for a second, it’s pretty obvious that going to some village and handing out a bunch of disposable hygiene products once might make for good photos, but it doesn’t do much for anyone who needs to use these items every day forever.

Instead, one of the four core activities in JOHC is called Vendor Outreach, where we work with village shopkeepers to make sure that dental hygiene products are locally available and affordable, the same way sugar, salt, incense, and laundry soap are.

In the past, vendor outreach has mainly consisted of having local JOHC teams – i.e. residents – visit the shops in their villages, look at products, talk to vendors about fluoridated toothpaste, and sometimes put up posters or stickers that help people identify toothpaste with fluoride. But this summer we’re working on stepping it up. The main reason is that schools need supplies to run their school brushing programs. For that, we provide brushes and paste on a declining schedule, but by the end of two years, either students or the schools have to finance $1 per student per year to run their brushing programs permanently. Even though this is extremely inexpensive, our experience has been that when supplies run out, often schools just don’t replace them. If we want schools to buy brushes and paste, they need to be extremely easy to get.

Therefore, in June, we started Vendor Outreach 2.0 by looking for the best-priced wholesale distributors in Pokhara, with the idea of setting up a direct link between village shopkeepers and the best possible deal on dental care products. But when we approached our first shopkeeper with this idea he told us he already buys his supplies from a wholesale truck that comes through his village on a regular schedule.

P1000170 copyOk, we said, could we get the truck to go to the best-priced wholesale places? We showed the vendor the prices. The vendor showed them to his truck guy. The truck guy offered a better rate.

So that was over.

Onward, then, to Salyan, one of our harder-to-access regions, where Gaurab was organizing a vendor outreach program for the following week. He had a list of about 25 shopkeepers and their phone numbers. It occurred to us that we should invite school teachers also, since the point was for the teachers who run the brushing programs to connect with the vendors who supply the products they need. This stroke of insight made us feel brilliant. Actually, that was a really good idea.

Before the Gaurab’s trip out to Salyan for Vendor Outreach 2.0, I suggested that he print out little slips of paper with the location and contact info of the best wholesalers we’d found in Pokhara. That way we’d make sure all Salyan’s shopkeepers had this info in a nice tidy fashion. For the best deal.

“So how’d it go?” I asked Gaurab back in the office on Tuesday.

“Great,” he says. “We had over 20 vendors and a lot of the teachers running their school brushing programs came too. We made visits to a number of shops, and I brought the poster with the fluoridated toothpaste packages.”

Vendor Outreach in Salyan

“Awesome, did you give out the contact info for the wholesalers?”

“Yes but…”

“What?”

“I mean, they said they already get brushes and paste at that rate from their wholesale trucks.”

“Are you serious?”

“They said they can totally visit the wholesalers we found if they happen to come to Pokhara,” he consoled me.

“So basically, we’ve spent the whole summer on this, and what you’re saying is…village shopkeepers already get brushes and paste at wholesale prices from trucks that deliver right to them.”

“Yes.”

“All these schools already have vendors down the street with access to these products at the cheapest prices we can find.”

“Yes.”

“…So Vendor Outreach is basically just…getting the teachers up the street together with vendors, and convincing them to purchase supplies down the street.”

“Yes.”

“Like all we have to do is get everyone together and talk about it.  Maybe assign a specific shop to each school.”

“Pretty much,” Dilmaya chimes in.

“Guys,” I said.

“I mean, they can use the wholesalers we found if they come to Pokhara,” Gaurab reminded me comfortingly.

“Why is everyone going around handing out free dental supplies?” I demanded to nobody.

Back to the drawing board.

We find this over and over. Our complicated ideas for fixing things are 99% irrelevant, with a critical 1% of something that is missing: information, a tool, a little encouragement, some social integration, a familiarizing element or formality. Vendor outreach will continue to involve oral health education for shopkeepers, because most people are not aware of the importance of fluoridated toothpaste in preventative care. But then it’s mostly a matter of building relationships between vendors and purchasers–especially between schools and specific local shops to source the supplies for their very affordable brushing programs.

In other words, we need tea parties more than we need supply chains, more than we need products, more than we need anything that’s not already there.

In conclusion, we’ll enthusiastically be taking donations of items such as art supplies for oral health games in schools, certificates of achievement for Oral Health Coordinators, funds we can spend on having local tailors sew brush holders, holding workshops, lobbying local leaders, creating teaching materials; and actually, if anyone wants to offer rides to our field officers out to Sindure and Rupakot and Salyan so they don’t have to spend so many hours walking or stuck on buses, that’d be great.  Also, snacks.  Help us out – there are many things we need to do our part well, and lots of opportunities to support communities in Nepal.

As far as brushes and paste though, I think local shopkeepers figured this out quite some time ago.  Duh.

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Vendor Outreach in Sardikhola with technician Megnath Adhikari

Vendor Outreach in Sardikhola with technician Megnath Adhikari