Dental Help for a Neglected Group

Dental Help for a Neglected Group

Dr Gao Xiaoli (5th from left) at the Oral Health Campaign at Victoria Park 
Indonesian domestic helpers learning to brush and floss

Some 140,000 Indonesian domestic helpers are employed in Hong Kong to look after families here, but how well are they looking after themselves?

That question was posed by undergraduate students of Dr Gao Xiaoli, Professor Edward Lo and Professor Colman McGrath in the Faculty of Dentistry, who set out to help this group and, in the process, inspired a large-scale KE project that involved the Faculty, the Indonesian Consulate-General, the association representing employment agencies, the Hong Kong government and an industry partner (Colgate), and reached thousands of domestic helpers.

Dr Gao's students carried out a small community health project in 2011 that provided dental examinations to 163 Indonesian domestic helpers and discovered that over 90% of them had tooth decays, and none of them had healthy gums. Besides, many had not seen a dentist before, did not use dental floss and held some fatalistic views about dental health.

"In their culture, they believe once someone gets to 50 or 60 years old, he/she will definitely have dental problems and teeth will fall out, that this is unavoidable. This is probably one of the main barriers they have to taking care of their teeth," Dr Gao said.

"Moreover, most of them are looking after children and the elderly in their work, so there is also a concern that they may not be trying so hard to get these people to look after their dental health, too, due to such fatalistic beliefs."

The success of the student project led the Indonesian Consulate-General and employment agencies to ask the Faculty if it could promote oral health to domestic workers on a much larger scale. "It was an opportunity not to be missed," Dr Gao said.

"Our team has been working on dental public health for some years, trying to understand the social and cultural context of oral health and improve oral health among disadvantaged groups. Indonesian domestic helpers are a group that needs our help."

She and her colleagues developed a four-part project for the helpers that included producing 100,000 oral health education packs and distributing them through the Indonesian consulate, employment agencies and other outlets; organising an oral health campaign that reached about 6,000 Indonesian domestic workers; organising "train-the-trainer" workshops for representatives from 237 employment agencies; and providing individualised oral health advice for 968 domestic workers.

The benefits have extended beyond the workers themselves. "Now that they are better equipped with this knowledge, they can give better care to the local families they look after. Indirectly, the project also benefits Hong Kong society," Dr Gao said.

Dr Xiaoli Gao and her team members, Professor Edward C. M. Lo and Professor Colman McGrath received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2014 of the Faculty of Dentistry for the project on "Oral Health Promotion among Indonesian Domestic Workers and Their Employers' Families".