The Dental Team Delivers Smiles and So Much More in Bolivia

August 11, 2022

Here’s what they did, and why it’s worth it.

The smiles in the city of Tarija are brighter and more beautiful than ever after Operation International’s recent visit.

The Dental Team was there for 8 days at the beginning of July and wasted no time getting to work. During their stay, they treated more than 500 patients!

To really appreciate the work they did and why their visit was so important, we must first understand the state of dentistry in Bolivia.

Dentistry in Bolivia Is in a Dire State, Yet Full of Potential

Bolivia is a landlocked country and one of the poorest, if not the poorest in South America on a GDP per capita basis.

In concrete terms, it means the country has fewer resources and struggles to afford things more easily purchased in wealthier nations.

While there is a lack of resources, by no means is there a lack of effort. As the Dental Team observed, the local dentists and professors are talented, and the country has universities that train dentists.

In fact, Bolivia produces on average 400 new dentists each year, according to Dr. Nilesh Patel, who was part of the Dental Team’s recent trip to Tarija.

The government even encourages the nation’s poorest residents to go to the universities for (subsidized) dental treatment, to the extent it is available.

But again, when you have limited resources, progress is limited.

In a country where GDP per capita is roughly USD $3,400 per person, dentistry equipment is prohibitively expensive. When one curing light alone costs up to $1,000, it’s hard being a dentist in Bolivia.

And with high costs and limited supplies, it means the nation’s dentistry students get less time in training on the equipment and procedures. Also, the universities cannot afford the costs for all equipment; even masks, gowns, and gloves are often in short supply. Students must pay out of pocket for smaller items, which are still expensive.

Unlike the US with a robust financial system and easy access to credit, Bolivia has nothing like it, so students usually do not get the financing they need.

Where Have All the Dentists Gone?

Despite the ~400 new dentists each year, they are hard to find in smaller cities and rural areas.

Although the Bolivian government requires dentists-in-training to spend a certain amount of time working in rural areas to be fully certified, many dentists go to larger cities like Santa Cruz, La Paz, and El Alto, where they will earn more money, immediately upon certification.

In some cases, Bolivian dentists will move to Argentina, Colombia, or Brazil, attracted by prospects of higher pay.

It’s only natural for an individual to seek out the best opportunities available, but it’s the people in Bolivia’s small towns and rural areas who lose out. As the qualified dentists move elsewhere, sometimes there are zero dentists in close proximity.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Dr. Nilesh Patel, “There is no economic incentive for dentists to work in rural areas, even though they need care the most. For the time being, it is up to groups like Operation International to help fill that void.”

When Being a Dentist Is Expensive, So Is Going to a Dentist

With high costs and limited access to dentists, many Bolivians in the rural areas do not get the routine and preventative dental care they need.

As a result, tooth decay is common... and a bigger problem than Team Dental expected!

Dr. Patel commented, “We never thought people could have so much decay in their mouth, but that’s what happens when you lack the financial resources. There’s no other way around it.”

Dr. Patel noted how sad it is for parents of children with dental issues in particular.

“They know their kids should see a dentist, but they can’t afford the visit.”

This Is Why the Dental Team Went to Bolivia

Clearly, there was a need to go to Tarija.

When news came out that Operation International was coming, local residents and people in surrounding areas made sure to be there for a visit.

In fact, every day the Dental Team was there, there were lines of 150 or more people waiting to be seen!

The team worked 12 hours a day, from 8AM to 8PM, and in those 8 days they treated over 500 patients!

As Dr. Patel said, “There was little time to rest. Every time we saw the long lines, we kept our focus and wanted to help as many as we could.”

And when he saw the patients’ gratitude, it motivated him more. “They were genuinely appreciative of what we were doing. They were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

What Happens in Bolivia After Operation International “Leaves?”

To clarify, when the mission is over, that doesn’t mean Operation International is leaving for good.

When operating in a new country, there is a never-ending series of legal, logistical, and bureaucratic hurdles to jump over. Once we finally get in, we plant our roots and plan our next return.

In the case of Tarija, Operation International partnered with a local university that had the infrastructure for us to work. Connections have been made, and we intend to keep them going.

As the universities are places for Bolivia’s least well-off to receive care, the Dental Team was in the perfect spot to help those who needed it most.

And when the Dental Team traveled to Bolivia, they brought 6 months’ worth of supplies and equipment to leave behind with the university. That way the students get better training, and dentists have the resources needed to treat patients at the highest level.

And with each return visit, the supplies are replenished.

Future Dentist Visits Will Cost Less for Bolivians, Thanks to Operation International

It is not possible to follow up on every patient after the mission is over, but the Dental Team has ways to help the patient lower costs for future visits, wherever they go.

Going to a dentist, one of the major costs for the patient is getting an X-Ray. If the patients don’t have a prior X-Ray or any records, they must pay for the procedure.

In the case of our dental patients, a huge benefit for them is the Dental Team had X-Rays done on everyone, and they received an official file of their records.

So now that the patients have their X-Rays and records, they do not need another costly procedure. They will save a lot of money should they visit a dentist again.

What’s Next for the Dental Team

Bolivia was a huge success, and the Dental Team will be back again.

Having just returned, it’s too early to say when, but time flies, and plans will be underway in no time.

To all the donors, thank you so much. Your support has impacted the lives of hundreds of people who will forever remember your generosity.