Celebrating a lifetime of smiles

As 2024 marks the 11th-annual World Oral Health Day (WOHD), it also commemorates the 25th anniversary of Smile Train, a global partner of the campaign. Dental Asia speaks with Dr Mónica Domínguez, director of Global Oral Health Programs at Smile Train, and Bruce Peatey, group vice-president APAC RCO at Dentsply Sirona, to learn about the role of sustainable models and partnerships in supporting comprehensive cleft care.

Smile Train

Around the world, a baby with a cleft is born every three minutes, and many will not receive the reconstructive surgery they need. A cleft occurs when certain body parts and structures do not fuse together during foetal development and can cause difficulties eating, breathing, hearing, and speaking.

Since its founding in 1999, Smile Train has grown to become the world’s largest cleft focused organisation, supporting over 1.9 million free cleft surgeries.

“Smile Train is on track to achieve its vision of a world where every person has access to high-quality comprehensive cleft care. The life-changing impact we have had on cleft affected children, health systems, and patient outcomes over 25 years is unmatched,” said Dr Domínguez, director of Global Oral Health Programs at Smile Train.

As compared to mission-trip-based cleft organisations, Smile Train credits the impact it has had on the field to its sustainable model, which focuses on establishing partnerships with local, in-country medical professionals to sponsor cleft treatments for patients in their own communities. In other words: “teaching a man to fish.”

This model enables Smile Train’s network to be more efficient and effective in acheiving its goals. “Smile Train is built on the belief that supporting and training local medical professionals to provide high-quality comprehensive cleft treatment will not only lead to patients receiving superior care 365 days a year — but can also build better, stronger, more resilient healthcare systems worldwide,” Dr Domínguez said.

This model has allowed the organisation to train more than 40,000 medical professionals globally; launch seven Cleft Leadership Centers that serve as regional hubs for cleft treatment, education, training, and research; put cleft care on the global health agenda at various UN meetings; and even develop a novel virtual surgery simulator for cleft treatment.

SUSTAINABILITY, SUPPORT, AND PARTNERSHIP

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Smile Train’s sustainable model was reaffirmed at a time when other organisations that relied on medical mission trips were shut down entirely. The organisation and its beneficiaries relied upon the robust network of local medical professionals established to react quickly and resume care as soon as local authorities determined it was safe.

“In that time of uncertainty and ambiguity for the world, our sustainable ‘teach a man to fish’ model allowed us to safely sponsor more than 68,000 safe cleft surgeries in over 60 countries from March through December in 2020,” said Dr Domínguez.

During the same period, Smile Train further expanded its telehealth programmes to monitor patients who still could not receive surgery and provide virtual check-ups, speech therapy sessions, and other remote care as needed.

Primescan AC
A technician at Smile Train partner FISULAB in Colombia using Dentsply Sirona’s Primescan AC with a cleft-affected patient

Dr Domínguez shared that in its early years, Smile Train focused almost solely on cleft surgeries in areas and regions where cost was the main barrier families faced in accessing cleft treatment. As the organisation’s partnerships and impact expanded to reach new countries and regions, so did the scope of its medical programmes. Today, the organisation supports not only cleft surgery, but also oral health, nutrition, speech services, psychosocial care, and other essential services that families and children affected by clefts often need.

The organisation’s model and partnerships have also enabled them to invest in lasting medical infrastructure, increase local expertise, and redefine the public health landscape through research, innovation, training, and advocacy, to ensure safe and holistic patient- and community-centred care.

Smile Train’s focus on comprehensive cleft care is not only about supporting free cleft surgeries, but extending support for additional services such as dental, psychosocial, speech, and nutrition care.

In September 2021, Smile Train and Dentsply Sirona launched a five-year partnership to improve access to global oral health care and create a more sustainable future for cleft affected children and families worldwide. The joint goal of the partnership is to improve the entire spectrum of cleft care, leveraging advanced dental technologies for safe, efficient, and expert patient care.

25 MORE YEARS OF TEACHING

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, 2024 marks a proud moment for Smile Train and its partners in the progress made to provide access to comprehensive cleft care.

Since the start of the partnership, Dentsply Sirona has sponsored more than 2,700 lifechanging cleft surgeries, including more than 1,200 cleft surgeries in nine countries in Asia and the Middle East and North Africa region. At the beginning of 2024, Smile Train and Dentsply Sirona officially activated their partnership in APAC, where the prevalence of cleft is one in 500.

To celebrate this, Dentsply Sirona’s APAC team prepared 300 oral health kits for children undergoing cleft care at Smile Train partner centres. The kits include get-well cards prepared by over 1,700 Dentsply Sirona employees in APAC. Dentsply Sirona APAC Leadership Team with the dental kits prepared for APAC cleft patients to celebrate the activation of Dentsply Sirona and Smile Train partnership in APAC Furthermore, Dentsply Sirona has signed agreements with Smile Train to donate equipment to seven Smile Train partner centres in five countries. The Philippines is the first country in APAC to receive the donation, with installation recently completed in February 2024.

“We are currently looking into other countries for potential donations, such as China and India. Meanwhile, we will continue to sponsor surgeries for patients in Asia, including in China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand,” said Peatey.

Bruce Peatey, group vice-president APAC RCO at Dentsply Sirona, Dr Monica Domínguez, director of Global Oral Health Programs at Smile Train
From left: Bruce Peatey, group vice-president APAC RCO at Dentsply Sirona, and Dr Monica Domínguez, director of Global Oral Health Programs at Smile Train

To read the full article, click here or refer to Dental Asia March/April 2024 issue.