How Smile Express is taking oral healthcare to rural Rajasthan with its mobile dental vans

Founded by Dr Mukesh Panwar in 2017, Smile Express has conducted over 300 screening and treatment camps in government and private schools, colleges, slums, and industrial areas in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

According to Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) survey released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, every third adult in rural India and every fifth adult in urban India use tobacco in some form or the other.

Tobacco use is directly linked to many diseases. In addition to several chronic diseases, most of the Indian populace is affected with common oral problems like periodontal disease, which affects 90-95 percent of the population, followed by dental caries (tooth decay) affecting nearly 60-80 percent of children, and oral cancer accounts for almost 30-35 percent of the total diagnosed cancer cases.

Mukesh Panwar (second from right)

While most of these problems are curable, what makes the situation worse in rural areas, which constitutes 70 percent of the Indian population, is not having proper oral healthcare facilities.

Witnessing the plight of oral healthcare in rural Rajasthan, Dr Mukesh Panwar decided to address the problem, and founded the Smile Express in 2017.

Led by Rajasthan-based Oral Health Promotion Foundation, the organisation is on a mission to take oral healthcare to people in rural India.

Smile Express has so far conducted over 300 screening and treatment camps in government and private schools, colleges, slums, and industrial areas in rural and urban areas of Jaipur, Rajasthan. It has also treated over 14,800 people of all ages across the State.

Taking oral healthcare to rural India

Rural India has always witnessed a shortage of basic healthcare facilities. Though there are many healthcare facilities being provided to the rural populace with new government schemes such as the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, dental health has been restricted to just the urban areas, thereby excluding the rural and the underprivileged population from receiving adequate dental health facilities. And if they need treatment, they need to travel to nearby towns multiple times, burning a hole in their pocket.

Hailing from Balotra in Western Rajasthan, Mukesh had witnessed the plight of rural healthcare first-hand.

Oral healthcare checkup by Smile Express

Speaking to SocialStory, Mukesh says, “While pursuing dentistry, I realised most of the dental clinics were present only in urban areas, and there was no primary dental care facility in rural areas. Spending time in the rural areas in Rajasthan helped me understand the limitations of dental services”.

Mukesh did his Masters of Public Health and Dental Public Health and Education from Jodhpur School of Public health. He graduated in dentistry from Jodhpur Dental College and General Hospital during which he worked for National Polio Surveillance Project, World Health Organisation.

The turning point

During his tenure as a public health professional with the WHO and The Piramal Foundation, Mukesh realised that mobile healthcare units in rural areas were effective in providing basic healthcare facilities.

These units helped in extending the arm of medical sciences to the last mile in rural areas. And this gave rise to the idea of starting mobile dental units.

Mukesh says, this was the turning point for him, and he got an idea to start Smile Express with a vision of oral health for all.

The next step for him was to implement this idea, and like many concepts, he also faced a series of obstructions, including the funding.

“Being a dentist, business wasn’t my cup of tea, but to materialise my idea, I had to learn entrepreneurial skills. I joined Jagriti Yatra as a facilitator to understand the concept of enterprises and the Arvind Eyecare model. During this, I got an opportunity to discuss my project with School for Social Entrepreneur India, where I got selected for the first batch in 2016."

Reaching the masses

After learning the basic entrepreneurial skills and materialising his idea, Mukesh flagged off his first project in a rural patch called Bassi Block in Jaipur. Here, Mukesh started working with a couple of gram panchayats and set up free healthcare camps.

From creating awareness and sensitising people towards oral health issues, including primary and preventive treatments, they were provided with treatment free of cost at the camp.

Mukesh says, “During our camp operations, we got good response from villagers. After every camp, there was a feedback session during which we discussed about the outcomes. We were and are the first organisation which is doing screening plus treatment camps in villages."

He also managed to secure funding in the form of grants and cross-subsidised revenue from the Community Dental Care, to sustain the project's outreach camp.

Following the positive response, the organisation also started a school dental health programme to educate school children about the importance of dental health.

The impact

Now, Mukesh-led Oral Health Promotion Foundation (OHPF) is working with 44 gram panchayats, and has covered over 200 villages.

The organisation also conducts dental camps in Vishwakarma Industrial Area in Jaipur, where over 1,250 workers have been screened and treated till date.

With its mobile/portable dental clinics, Smile Express is now providing on-the-spot diagnostics, preventive, interceptive, and curative dental services to the underprivileged at their doorsteps.

The organisation has also set up over 25 counselling and tobacco cessation camps, and has treated over 600 patients. The entire initiative is supported and run by 70 frontline workers – ASHA and AWC – who are trained by Mukesh and his team as part of the Oral Pulse Programme.

Speaking about his team, Mukesh says,

“Our team has seven full-time employees, and five part-time employees depending on the programme requirements. From government liaison for camp-site approval to oral pulse training curriculum for frontline workers, school dental health programme, and industrial dental health programme, each employee has been assigned work depending on the programme requirements”.

The roadmap

Apart from establishing sustainable, affordable, and accessible mobile portal dental clinics in rural Rajasthan, Mukesh is now looking to cater to the entire 70 percent rural population in India.

“In the next five years, we will expand this programme to all the 33 districts and 10,000 gram panchayats in Rajasthan. Although we are open to work in any State, it all depends on the programme support. We will start over 10 community dental centres to support and sustain the future programme,” says Mukesh.

(Edited by Megha Reddy)


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