When Dr Mengzhu Wang first started her dental studies, she assumed she would work in a city-based private practice. But after multiple opportunities to experience rural and remote dentistry during her studies, she set her sights firmly on a career providing dental care in under-serviced areas.
When Meng first decided to study dentistry, she assumed she would work in private practice in her home of Brisbane. But in her second year, Meng completed an international placement in Nepal that would spark her interest in providing dentistry to underprivileged communities. Further trips followed to Tanzania, Cherbourg, Tara, and culminated in a student organised trip to Papua New Guinea, facilitated by Hope4Health. Through these further placements and volunteering opportunities, Meng began to explore the drawcard of rural dentistry – helping people who ordinarily don’t have easy access to dental services.
“I was fortunate to travel to the Western Province of Papua New Guinea for a placement, where I got to experience working in rural and remote locations while working in the public sector. It was really fulfilling and gave me so much inspiration for my future. Being able to travel to remote towns and people in need really cemented with me that I wanted to make a career out of it,” Meng explains.
“My early experiences of providing dental care through the public health system were fulfilling and enriching and by my fourth year I realised I didn’t want to be in the situation of charging people for their dental care. This was solidified in my fifth year, where a placement with Queensland Health helped me finalise my plans – from there on I wanted to work publicly.
“My favourite thing about studying with Griffith was being able to have so many excellent placement opportunities. I was exposed to a lot of rural activity through further opportunities with student societies and groups.
“In 2011, I saw Goondiwindi for the first time with the Hope4Health student club’s Clinical Skills Weekend, and then I went with Hope4Health students to the Joint Rural Health Club Weekend in Stanthorpe in 2012. We also went out to Cherbourg to provide dental care with Hope4Health.”
Meng’s advice for current or future dentistry students is to find activities outside of dentistry that can help you grow as a person and give you an outlet outside of classes.
“I feel like in dental school you really find yourself as a person – the biggest challenge is time and feeling like there’s not enough time to get everything done,” Meng recalls.
“My advice to students is that even when it feels like you’re too busy, it’s absolutely necessary to take time for yourself doing something you enjoy that has nothing to do with dentistry.
“It’s a message a lot of senior dentists told me as well – they lived it; they knew it. If you make your whole life about dentistry without stopping to smell the roses, you will come out with the technical skill, but you won’t be that well-rounded clinician you could be if you interact with the outside world. Learning how to talk to people and empathising with life experiences makes you a better clinician.”
Since graduating, Meng has worked throughout New South Wales and Queensland. Her first year after graduation saw her doing locum relief work in multiple locations. At the end of that year, she moved to Caloundra hospital, where she worked for three years before returning to her rural dream. During this time, she volunteered as a dentist in aid projects in Israel and Timor-Leste.
“I am grateful for the mentorship and support I received at Caloundra Hospital, but after three years I itched for adventure and was in a position to go out to communities that needed me more, so I moved to Mount Isa to work for the North West Hospital and Health Service,” Meng says.
“Working in Mount Isa, I developed a plethora of skills I wouldn’t have in the city. I was credentialled in general anaesthetics and obtained my medium rigid truck license so I could drive a dental drover clinic to remote communities. We made trucking trips from Mount Isa to gulf regions like Burketown, where we would set up for three weeks, working out of the truck to see local patients.
“Burketown is a very small town, very limited services, and it’s normally a 6-hour drive to get to a dentist for residents, even more for the people who live outside of town. So not only did we see people in Burketown, but we saw patients from farms and stations who drove for an hour or two to get to us.
“It’s such a huge benefit for them, something that they rarely take for granted. Having good dental health can make you feel better throughout your entire body – everything is connected so something as simple as a clean can benefit your overall health and improve outcomes of diabetic and pregnant patients, where something more involved such as removing a tooth can cancel out pain and potentially life threatening infection.
“I finished up in Mt Isa in July of 2020. In my time there, I was flown to remote outposts like Mornington Island and Doomadgee, which meant I was living out of a suitcase for 18 months, non-stop. That was fine when it was just me, but then I met my fiancé and realised you can’t grow a relationship with a permanently itinerant lifestyle.
“I’m now the senior dentist at Goondiwindi Hospital. The local community are thrilled to have a public dentist again, because right after my predecessor left the clinic closed temporarily due to COVID-19. I’ve been the senior dentist here for 3 months. While I’m no longer remote, I’m still working in rural dentistry – I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the city in the near future.
“It’s been fantastic to start up the public service again for the most vulnerable members of the community. Even so, it’s been a while between clinician availability, so there are some complicated cases such as paediatric general anaesthetics on the waiting list that we’re getting through without patients families travelling 2.5 hours to Toowoomba.”
While Meng has stepped away from driving her dental truck to remote locations, she knows she’s filling a vital need in Goondiwindi. When looking to the future, she sees many benefits in being based in one location, particularly the ability to see regular patients.
“Next on the horizon is sticking this out – I’ve got a really good feeling here! I want to settle down in Goondiwindi, but I haven’t ruled out future locum work into other rural and remote towns,” Meng explains.
“My fiancé is a high school teacher, and he likes giving back to rural and remote communities in the same way I do. We’ve got the appetite for the Northern Territory or Torres Strait, and locum work could help us fulfill that.
“It’s been a big change coming from somewhere ultra-remote to somewhere rural. But being able to see regular patients is something I’m really enjoying. It allows a continuity of care that I love. I’m seeing patients improve and I love that. It’s poetic I’ve ended up in Goondiwindi after visiting 9 years ago during a dental school trip promoting rural practice!”
If like Meng you have an interest in dentistry, Griffith has multiple degree options to help you start your career. Articulate from the Bachelor of Dental Health Science to the Master of Dentistry to register as a dentist, or build a career as a Dental Hygienist, Technologist or Prosthetist. Students of rural origin are encouraged to apply for Griffith to take part in the Rural Priority Access Scheme.