Filling a dire need for dental healthcare in rural KwaZulu-Natal


Discovery asked the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation to tell us about doctors making a big impact in their communities. Meet Dr Sabelo Mngomezulu, a dentist who strives to improve the quality of life of the people of Ingwavuma, KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Sabelo Mngomezulu, the head of the dental clinic at Mosvold Hospital, decided to become a dentist when he saw a dire need in his community for oral healthcare.

“I was born and raised in the small village of Ingwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal,” he says. “I chose to study dentistry to improve the quality of life of the people and community of Ingwavuma.”

Volunteer work leads to a career in dentistry

After matriculating from Ingwavuma High School, Dr Mngomezulu spent six weeks volunteering at the Mosvold Dental Clinic to observe what dentistry was about and to learn more about the oral health challenges in the Ingwavuma community.

With the help of Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, he pursued his dental studies. “I obtained a Bachelor of Dental Science degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2015,” Dr Mngomezulu continues.“I chose dentistry because during the weeks I spent observing different disciplines at Mosvold Hospital, I realised that there was a huge gap in oral hygiene care. There was little if anything that was done at the hospital to cater for oral health and the community was not informed about oral hygiene.”

The importance of having role models

When he was growing up, Dr Mngomezulu didn’t have role models to help him choose a career. “I had nothing much to look up to as I was growing up, except hoping to work on the gold mines of Johannesburg. Until I decided to get exposure at Mosvold Hospital to learn more about medicine and dentistry.”

His decision opened doors for him and his community, but the journey had many hurdles. He says the transition from rural education to Wits University and the language barrier were the two biggest challenges. “Becoming a dentist requires a lot of strength and patience. Having matriculated from a rural underprivileged school, it took a lot of hard work and patience to obtain a dental degree at Wits.”

The future of oral healthcare in rural areas

Today, Dr Mngomezulu manages the dental department at Mosvold Hospital. “This entails planning the day-to-day delivery of quality dental services to the people of Ingwavuma, ordering the resources needed for the day-to-day running of the dental clinic, as well as playing a supervisory role to the dental staff members,” he explains.

“The main reason why I studied dentistry was to educate the community to improve oral health through observing and practising good oral hygiene. This I’ve achieved with the little resources we have,” he adds. “Moving forward, I would like to see more preventative modes of treatment being introduced such as dental restorations, bridges and crowns, as well as partial and complete dentures for elderly patients.”

“The future of oral healthcare in rural areas is still uncertain,” he says. “Government still prioritises general health over oral health, but I do hope that with more awareness campaigns conducted in schools and community gatherings one day we will achieve our goal.”

“Becoming a future leader in my field actually means more responsibility to ensure that my voice is heard by policymakers and policy influencers. It’s also an opportunity to expose more young people to studying dentistry,” he adds.

Practising dentistry during COVID-19

Dr Mngomezulu shares how coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has affected his life and his work. “Personally, I’m taking a lot of strain. Since the lockdown, I haven’t been able to travel to Johannesburg to see my family. Professionally I’m doing okay. Fortunately, we haven’t had a COVID-19 case in our district yet to date, but I feel that I have to be here for those who might get infected and will need my help.”

“There hasn’t really been much of a change in my department,” he adds. “We have suspended non-emergency services but patients still come for tooth extractions and abscesses.”

“I’m part of the COVID-19 response team at Mosvold Hospital, and every morning we meet to discuss and share information about COVID-19. During the process we motivate each other as medical professionals,” he shares. How do they stay safe? “By using precautionary measures at all times, staying informed and hoping that soon COVID-19 will be a thing of the past.”

  • Listen to Azania Mosaka’s moving interview with Dr Mngomezulu:

We say thank you to Dr Sabelo Mngomezulu for his continued work on the front line in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

About the Discovery Foundation

Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.

The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus to strengthen the healthcare system by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services.

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested more than R230 million in training and support for more than 400 medical specialists and institutions. The grants support academic research and clinical science, sub-specialist training, rural medicine as well as programmes to develop public healthcare resources. For 2019, Discovery Foundation awarded 42 grants to medical specialists working in South Africa’s healthcare sector to the value of R27 million.

Learn more and apply for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards.

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