Community | 22 August, 2019

Dunedin Dentist Driven to Make a Difference in Tonga

A volunteer mission to Tonga has turned into years of ideas and planning for Dunedin based Dentist Jacob Grieve.

Jacob along with his family of three children and wife Justine were part of a group of around 30 Kiwis on the medical mission to Tonga in September.  “Unfortunately, oral heath in Tonga is not great,” says Jacob, Lead dentist at  Lumino Knox Dental  and Lumino Pitt St. “There are so many unmet needs.”

A dental initiative, named the Mali Mali program was implemented in 1998 and has seen oral health improve dramatically, he says.

However there are still so many children falling behind in their oral health.

Jacob says that although things are starting to change, some oral health messages haven’t been integrated into everyday life and sugar consumption in the small pacific nation is high. Through training and development of the local practitioners he sees opportunity and a role for himself.

Jacob re-calls a single moment which made that very clear. He met a man in the street who informed him he gets his teeth checked once a year. He had already lost teeth and realised he needed to take pre-emptive measures to keep the rest.

“He told me he understood the importance of check-ups.”

“I went back to the team of Tongan practitioners and spoke about my conversation with Osi, the man I had met on the street. I told them they were making a difference in their community and you could just see the pride in their faces.”

“It was priceless. You could see they were so proud of what they were achieving,” he added.

Going forward, Jacob says he wants to use this sentiment to help empower the dental professionals in Tonga to do the best for their people.

“Prevention will solve a lot of problems,” he says. “We just need to keep making improvements. They are not ill equipped,” he says.

“They do have high end dental chairs and dental equipment, with tweaking and training they can be a lot more successful.”


Driven to make a difference

Jacob says he’s always been driven to make a difference.  “Even before dental school, I wanted to help make a difference. I didn’t just want to care and provide for my family. I wanted to help people, it’s also part of my faith,” he says.

“We are all human and have an opportunity to care for those around us.”

So when a call came from work associate and friend from church Fiona Langridge asking for volunteers for the mission, Jacob immediately wanted to help.

“Fiona had already built a good relationship with the Tongan Ministry of Health and Tonga’s largest hospital, Vaiola Hospital.”

He says it was easy to say ‘yes’ and donate his time and skills to the people of Tonga.


Going forward

Going forward, Jacob has a lot on the radar.  Primarily, it’s the big picture of contributing to the training the dental professionals in Tonga.

Also on the cards is a trip back to Tonga with a group of dental practitioners to work on a prevention initiative, where he hopes to go into schools and provide sealant treatments.

“It’s a simple method to prevent tooth decay that requires no drilling and is relatively cost-effective,” he says. “If we could spend a few days going into schools doing that, it will be a huge benefit to the community.

Happy kids brushing their teeth on the field

An even bigger goal is getting funding for a mobile dental unit for the country. “Some schools have clinics but some don’t,” says Jacob. “Many children end up falling through the cracks.”

“A mobile dental unit will lower the barriers to dental health, we can get the treatment to them, rather than the other way round.” An application for a grant is on the cards, but the reality is that it’s still a few years away.

Dr Jacob Grieve with the Tongan practitioners


As well as continuing working as a general dentist at Lumino Knox Dental and Lumino Pitt St in Dunedin and his ongoing work in Tonga, Jacob is the president of the Otago Branch of the NZDA. Lumino proudly supported Jacob with this volunteer work with a cash donation.