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A History Worth Smiling About - Africa’s Largest Dental School Celebrates 40 Years Of Excellence

Author: Aidan van den Heever & Nicklaus Kruger

UWC’s Dentistry Homecoming Reunion: a chance for Africa’s largest dental school to celebrate four decades of excellence in research, education and community service - and for generations of dentists to celebrate lifelong learning and friendship.

(Published - 17 July 2018)

As the University of the Western Cape’s Faculty of Dentistry held its Homecoming Reunion from 13 to 14 July, there was much to celebrate - not least being the 40 years of dental excellence the faculty has provided since producing its very first crop of graduates in 1978.

“As we celebrate 40 years of excellence in the provision of oral health care services, training and research, it is important to reflect on the past,” said UWC’s Dean of Dentistry, Professor Yusuf Osman - himself a graduate from the class of 1978. “UWC Dentistry has transformed from an apartheid institution, created to train dentists of colour, into a leading member of the international community of dental training institutions.”

Established in 1974 to be the only institution to train people of colour in South Africa - except for two coloured students admitted to Wits University annually - UWC Dentistry has become the biggest dental school on the continent.

Jointly funded by the Department of Health of the Provincial Government of the Western Cape and the University of the Western Cape, it produces a remarkable 48% of South Africa’s dental graduates. It also trains dentists, oral hygienists and postgraduate students from other African countries as part of its WHO mandate to train the trainer,  and provides dental services to more than 120 000 patients every year.

Initially the faculty was housed on the top floor of the Oral Health Centre at Tygerberg Hospital, where Stellenbosch University’s School of Dentistry was accommodated on the other floors. In the early 1990s - in line with UWCs commitment to community-based education and training, and under the rectorship of Professor Jakes Gerwel -  it relocated to the Town Centre in Mitchells Plain.

“This move made comprehensive oral health care readily available to the Cape Flats communities, including Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Philippi and Crossroads - and at the same time provided an excellent opportunity for students to develop clinical proficiency in the context of a community setting,” said Professor Osman.

In 2004 Stellenbosch’s dental school was incorporated into the UWC Faculty of Dentistry, and the united school was accredited as a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre.

Nowadays the faculty, its staff and alumni are recognised for their impactful research and service throughout the world.

Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic, Professor Vivienne Lawack, said the 40th anniversary celebration of the Faculty of Dentistry comes at a time when the faculty has made huge inroads in the profession, as well as in oral health care in South Africa and on the continent.

“Besides being the largest provider of dentists to our system, the faculty has embraced being innovative in their learning and teaching, and research-led in their scholarly work,”  said Professor Lawack. “The Dentistry Faculty is well-positioned to enable students to learn with technology, and to grow digital dentistry in the next few years.”

Lifelong Learning and Community Service: Dentists Continue Their Professional Development

One of the things that sets UWC Dentistry apart is its commitment to learning as a lifelong affair, and to dentists continuing to study up about the latest techniques and technologies to better serve their communities.

This was reflected, for example, in the faculty’s recently-launched video-conferencing system. It allows students to watch lectures and live surgeries at the interactive video conferencing lecture rooms at the Mitchells Plain clinic and Tygerberg Hospital - even from home. This provides rich, real-time learning and collaborative opportunities where staff and students from the faculty can participate in webinars hosted by international partners such as the University of Bergen, Oslo University, and the Missouri University system in the USA.

But the faculty’s commitment to ongoing learning was also reflected in the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme that accompanied the reunion, which gave dentists from across the country the chance to keep their skills at the cutting edge.

The CPD programme was comprised of presentations about research, including oral health for general well being, pain management in dentistry, the emerging field of dental genetics, and ethics and how this impacts on the provision of care..

“As part of our role as oral care providers, steps should be taken for education and training,” said UWC Dentistry’s Professor Manogari Chetty, during her presentation with Dr Tina Roberts on The importance of Genes in Dentistry.

Professor Chetty - the only oral pathologist with a PhD in Human Genetics in South Africa - noted that genetics and hereditary issues are important factors in the transmission of various diseases or malformed dental tissues.

She explained that the application of the principles of generic medicine to the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases will fundamentally change the delivery of healthcare.

“As with many issues addressing Africa’s health needs, more research needs to be done,” Professor Chetty concluded. “I hope that some of us in this room will be able to pay some part in that - and in translating that research into the action our communities need.”

As regards Ethics in Action this was highlighted by two case studies, illustrating the lifelong attribute of community service instilled at UWC.

Dr Maurice Ferguson a UWC-trained orthodontist, presented work done at the Wentworth Foundation in KwaZulu-Natal by Dr Surandar Singh - the first orthodontist trained by UWC, and one of the first black orthodontists in South Africa. This Foundation treats cleft lip and palate patients that cannot routinely afford this, thereby enhancing their quality of life.

The second case study was presented by Dr Yusuf Da Costa. Together with his classmates, he established the Vision Medical Suites, providing free comprehensive oral health care to children at orphanages, the elderly in old-age homes and the indigent that generally cannot afford this care.

“By and large the Homecoming was a great success,” said Professor Osman. “It showcased UWCs talent, it highlighted the need for a networking system - and it reinforced the notion that the UWC Dentistry Faculty should always remain a centre of excellence for future generations.”

Want to know more about UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry? Just click here to learn Five Facts About UWC Dentistry That Will Put A Smile On Your Face. ​
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