Oral health students march to demand placement for community service
Oral health students from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria on Monday marched to the health department offices to demand that they be placed for community service so they can complete their compulsory training requirement.
Chairperson of the school of oral health sciences, Phuluso Semata, said the march related to the “continued refusal” by the national department of health to provide an opportunity for community services for oral hygienists and dental therapists.
“The continued refusal by the national department of health to make the community service provision for the above professions is a direct denying of the right for everyone in the republic to have access to health care services,” he said.
Wearing scrubs, clinical coats and face masks, the graduates marched, chanting and sang struggle songs.
Reading out their memorandum, Semata said the department must ensure that it urgently convened all relevant stakeholders and student leaders across the country to work towards ensuring that all oral health practitioners, and not only dentists, accorded the right to equal protection and benefit before the law.
The students also demanded that the department explain the alleged exclusion of oral hygienists and therapists for community service.
“We believe that oral hygienists and dental therapists ought to be treated the same and not be unfairly discriminated against on the basis of their qualification,” he said.
A final-year bachelor of dental therapy student, Mthuthuzeli Sondlo, said he doesn’t know where he is going to work next year, when he will be needing placement.
“I am supposed to be placed but there is no option for dental therapy and oral hygiene students to be placed,” he said.
The 28-year-old said it was devastating to only find out in your final year that you “don’t matter as much” as dentists.
“It was a shock, after I got into the programme, to realise that there is segregation and discrimination. It’s a dentistry qualification that was designed to assist peripheral communities,” he said.
“We realised that in the field of dentistry there is segregation, there are people who are 'more deserving' than others. So the government has reserved the government posts for dentists over people who have done oral hygiene and dental therapy.
“We are here to say it is not fair that in the same sector we are treated as lesser citizens than others. We are saying let them hear our voices, we also matter.”
Voicing their demands, Semata said they want the department “to outline why we have dentists in higher positions managing our affairs, while we have highly qualified and influential oral hygienists and dental therapists who are eligible for appointment at a directorate level to take charge of our matters”.
They also took issue with the “appalling” disparity in remuneration among professionals, and wanted an explanation from the department.
Semata said the department must encourage the relevant institutions of higher learning to fulfil their mandate of training more oral hygienists and dental therapists.
The students said the department must respond to their demands within 10 working days, adding that they “are open to engagements”.
Receiving the memorandum, advocate Maile Ngake, head of health sector bargaining and stakeholder engagement, said he would ensure the minister received the memorandum.
“I receive this memorandum on behalf of the minister. I will make sure that the minister receives the memorandum and that in line with the proposed date of response, we make efforts to ensure that your response is attended to,” he said.
Ravele Ndamulelo, also a final-year dental therapy student, said: “Our problem is that our degree is based on community, to serve the community, but when we graduate the department doesn’t do anything, we just receive our degree and go. We don’t have job security. We are saying we want community service.”
Health department spokesperson Foster Mohale said that community service was a government policy developed to recruit scarce, skilled health professionals to rural and under served areas — and that not all health professions are participants in the community service policy.
“The department has since been approached by a number of professional associations representing other health categories who have an interest, to be considered for participating in the Commserve programme. The national department has no objection to such request if this would ensure that sufficient numbers of skilled health professionals will be serving in rural and underserved areas of the country, where the department is struggling to recruit,” said Mohale.
However, he said that the department “prefers that such should be done in a more structured way”.
“Hence the department is in the process of sourcing a service provider to perform a comprehensive review of the Commserve policy in its totality. The terms of reference have been concluded and signed off,” he said.