Dentistry and the transformative power of volunteering

dentaid volunteering

Volunteering benefits the volunteers as well as the people they help – Dental Sky discusses the positive impact that volunteering can have for dental teams.

Volunteering might be considered a noble act of giving back to society. But it also has the potential to positively transform people, enabling them to evolve into improved versions of themselves.

Despite this, the number of us giving up time to help those most in need has plummeted. Recent government figures show the proportion of adults volunteering either formally or informally, monthly or annually, all fell to their lowest levels since it began collecting data in 2013-14 (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2023).

The Time Well Spent 2023, a national survey designed to complement the government’s Community Life Survey and commissioned by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NVCO), digs deeper to shine a more positive light.

Published in June 2023, it reveals that volunteers on the whole have a good experience. They see the difference they make and feel positively towards the organisations they volunteer with (NVCO, 2o23).

Commenting in his foreword to the NVCO survey, MP Stuart Andrew, Minister for Civil Society, notes: ‘Volunteering is critical to a vibrant and resilient civil society. When it comes to formal volunteering, this is a credit to the organisations and volunteer managers who help make volunteering a worthwhile and rewarding endeavour.’

‘Significant barriers in accessing dental services’

Dentists and their teams play a crucial role in promoting oral health and ensuring access to dental care for all individuals. However, there remain pockets of the population that continue to face significant barriers to accessing dental services – with the pandemic and, more latterly, the cost-of-living crisis exacerbating the problem.

Volunteering with oral health charities, such as Dentaid The Dental Charity, therefore presents an incredible opportunity for dental professionals to make a positive impact on the lives of underprivileged patients. Beyond the clinical setting, practitioners can contribute to improving oral health on a broader scale. And it may also provide unique opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Neil Sikka qualified as a dentist from the University of Leeds in 1987, opening the Barbican Dental Centre, one of the UK’s first corporate dental businesses in the 1990s. Later acquired by Bupa, he is now its UKI chief dental officer. As a practising dentist of some 30 years, volunteering has brought Neil new appreciation of the transformative effect dentistry can bring to people – and not just in the quality of their smiles.

Neil regularly volunteers with Dentaid The Dental Charity, donating much time to offer his skills to those most in need – at home and abroad. As well as practising with the charity’s mobile units around the UK – they have seven of these and a static dental trailer – he has also worked with them in northern Greece, treating Syrian refugees.

The list of his philanthropic efforts stretches far back throughout his long career. He has sponsored a dental carriage on the world’s first hospital train, The Lifeline Express, worked with the international charity, Mercy Ships, providing free care to children around Africa, and set up a dental unit for the Gwalior Children’s Hospital Charity in India.

‘The environment certainly tests you’

In his day to day, he practises in the City of London ­– ‘one of the most affluent and privileged parts of the world’ – so volunteering exposes him to a much more diverse patient population and offers fresh perspectives on his chosen profession.

‘You see more challenging and varied cases, which helps your problem-solving skills,’ he says. ‘Diagnosis is one of the most important skills for a dentist and the environment certainly tests you. You will see multiple problems in the mouth and must assess how to deal with the most important one – it sharpens clinical skills. We sadly have to undertake extractions, too, when ordinarily we would be saving teeth. But it has helped to improve my confidence in skills I generally do not utilise in practice.

‘I have learned to become more resourceful. When problems arise and we are faced without access to the equipment or material we usually use, we learn to adjust so volunteering teaches adaptability.

‘Working within a group allows everyone to feed off each other so we enjoy an environment of collaborative learning. With the charity’s open access clinics, we may need to watch someone else doing dentistry, which offers a fantastic opportunity to observe and learn.’

Personal growth as professional development

Every session brings new light on the challenges faced by many people in the UK. This has enhanced his dentistry and honed his understanding but it has also brought an evangelical zeal for volunteering. For Neil, it is as much about personal growth as professional development.

‘While it can have a big impact on the people you treat, volunteering also raises awareness of what your skills can offer. You better understand their value and how they can benefit the greater community – personal fulfilment is huge.

‘Civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and it is how I feel after working on a Dentaid mobile unit that matters to me.

‘Volunteering gives me a healthy perspective on life. Life isn’t perfect and is never going to be. But we see people suffering and learn that we can use our skills to help them. At a personal level, it also teaches me not to sweat the small stuff.’

Business support

Bupa is one of the many dental companies that support Dentaid The Dental Charity. Belmont, Dürr Dental and Dental Sky are among others that also contribute to its charitable efforts in numerous ways. As well as a practising dentist with Bupa and its UKI CDO, Neil is also chair of its charitable dental foundation committee and he strongly believes support from businesses has wider implications than simply ticking boxes for their corporate social responsibility programmes.

‘Encouraging staff to volunteer helps the wider community, but it also improves employment engagement and morale. Bupa colleagues get three days of paid leave every year to get involved in volunteer work. We are proud of this initiative and actively encourage it.

‘As a result, we have seen activity grow year on year. As more staff volunteer and share their experiences with colleagues back in their practice, it helps to inspires others.’

‘Truly life-affirming’

It can be challenging to schedule time out from a busy working life within dentistry, but Neil advises anyone considering volunteering to focus on the planning.

‘I book out time from my diary sometimes six months to a year in advance and will not allow anything to change that. I usually have patients booked in three months ahead, so I like to plan. It’s important to be organised.’

A recent post on the social media platform, LinkedIn, perhaps best sums up Neil’s perspective on the transformative power of volunteering.

Referencing a day spent with Dentaid The Dental Charity treating vulnerable communities in Brighton, he wrote: ‘It is interesting when I look back on my career. When I first qualified, I took my vocation a little for granted, assuming I was just doing my job when I treated my patients.

‘However, the more I work with Dentaid, the more I appreciate how important it is to use the skills you have to help those less fortunate. It is truly life-affirming to have the power to relieve pain and suffering. I would urge all my fellow clinicians to support Dentaid The Dental Charity by working for one day a year on the many mobile units operating around the country. Believe me, it will put a smile on your face all the way home.’

For references email [email protected].

For more information about Dental Sky, visit For more details and to support Dentaid The Dental Charity, visit

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