Haiti’s Oral Health Hero: An Interview with Matt O’Connell

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Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) was established by Sean Penn to bring medical supplies to aid the relief efforts of communities near the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Seven years later, J/P HRO is still in Haiti – rebuilding, not just relieving.

With an emphasis on sustainability and ownership, J/P HRO has 95% Haitian staff and has been central to community development in Delmas 32, a one-square kilometer city home to 90,000 people.

Among its medical, housing, and community projects, J/P HRO has created a first-of-its-kind model for sustainable dental health provision in Delmas 32.

In the following interview, Matt O’Connell, a professional in the dental industry and Board Member for J/P HRO, introduces us to this model and the transformation of oral health in Haiti.

How did you get involved with J/P?

When I was younger, I spent about three years in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps, working right on the Dominican-Haitian border. I’ve always been interested in development work, and I’ve kept my hands in it wherever possible since then.

in 2013, after building a career in the dental industry, I decided to take a year-long sabbatical and immerse myself in developmental work.

I met with a lot of different organizations and finally found J/P HRO. I went down to Haiti to see some of the projects they were doing and visited their medical clinic and their dental unit, which was comprised of a regular chair, some old extraction devices, and a dentist that was pulling teeth all day long. He’d see about 30 patients a day and he was really just dealing with acute problems.

The dentist’s name was Dr. Anderson. He was trained at Port-au-Prince University, and he was just a marvelous character. So, I talked to him and said, “Well, I can help here. We can build something better than this.”

So you spent your sabbatical establishing the dental clinic?

Yes. After meeting Dr. Anderson and seeing the potential for this dental unit, I spent the better part of the year down in Haiti. I went into the project rather cautiously, spending about six months evaluating everything, spending a lot of time at the University, getting to know Dr. Anderson and seeing him treat patients in a more normal environment. And after a few months we started to build out a dental clinic.

We established a really nice clinic in Delmas 32 with a great dental unit, instrumentation, sterilization – it was incredible. At first I wasn’t sure how well it would all work out, especially about how much ownership people were going to take. But it was extraordinary how, when given the opportunity, people rise to the occasion.

Matt and the JP HRO-Hope Smiles Dental Team
Matt and the JP HRO-Hope Smiles Dental Team

We started treating around 30 patients a day, six days a week. We still see a lot of patients in acute pain, but we are able to provide them a lot better treatment now.

It has really taken off in the community. Someone might come in to the clinic for the first time and need five or six follow-up visits, and they always keep their appointments. They’re sticking with it. And now, we’re starting to see more and more people come in for preventive purposes. They’re coming in before things become an acute problem. It’s really a genuine acceptance of having a dentist in their community. It’s come a long way.

How are you taking J/P HRO’s idea of sustainable community development, and applying it to the dental clinic and oral health care in Haiti?

As the clinic took off, I realized it was wholly dependent on me and my wife, Ana. We needed a way to bring in sustainable income to the clinic – something more than just donations and financial support from American individuals and organizations.

So, along with my long-time friend Dr. Jep Paschal, a well-known orthodontist in Atlanta, Georgia, we visited different dental clinics and talked to a lot of people, and found that the Haitian dental market is divided into two groups: The large market of people who need care and can’t afford it and the small market of people who have a good income, but don’t trust local dental clinicians to provide quality dental care, so they go to the Dominican Republic or Miami for treatment.

He and I discussed, asking, “What high-value services can we offer to upper-income Haitian families to convince them to come to Delmas 32 and pay for treatment here, which would help fund treatments for people who need care but cannot afford it?”

The answer was orthodontics. At $2,500 per case, fee-for-service orthodontic care is something that can bring in sustainable income for the clinic. With Dr. Jep Paschal and his colleagues, we have world-renowned orthodontists providing the treatment, and we’re using the Carriere system and technology that Haitians wouldn’t get in the Dominican Republic or Miami.

It turns out, it works. There’s huge demand, and it’s been really remarkable.

Dr. Jep Paschal Training the Team at J/P HRO orthodontic
Dr. Jep Paschal Training the Team at J/P HRO
What do you think makes this model unique?

It was really interesting because there were lots of people saying, “Well, on the surface that seems like a really great idea, but our clinic is not in a great neighborhood. Will middle and upper-income families really come to this community for orthodontic care?”

But we decided early on to try it. We would offer all of this expertise and technology in a place where people don’t expect it. We would also train local providers on how to maintain these patients throughout their treatment. And in doing so, we hoped it would help to change the conversation a little bit.

Another reason why orthodontics works out so well is that it’s low-risk. While Dr. Paschal trains these Haitian dentists, he’s providing them the opportunity to readily relieve patients’ pain, without a lot of the risk involved with other types of dentistry. So over two years, as someone is coming for their orthodontic appointments, and maybe they have a poking wire that the staff can fix, now the Haitian-trained dentist is going to be somebody who will alleviate their discomfort.

The beauty of the orthodontic program is that families receive great treatment; we get $2,500 per case to fund the clinic; but also, for a two-year period, upper-income families are coming into Delmas 32, and throughout that time they are establishing a positive relationship with Haitian providers.

What are your goals with this program?

We need to get about 60 active orthodontic cases going – about $65,000 a year – so we can run the entire clinic. With that, we can see almost 15,000 patients for free dental treatment. We’re on track for that goal.

Our next phase will be focusing on the quality of dental training in Haiti. We’ll continue to work with the University, along with a the power of J/P HRO and a partner organization, Hope Smiles, in order to make Haitians more confident in receiving treatment by Haitian-trained dentists.

And throughout this project, we’re working with the University, Haitian leaders at J/P HRO, and the Ministry of Health with the goal of making this entirely Haitian-owned.

Dental Team in Haiti
It’s been almost five years now since you started with J/P HRO for your “year-long sabbatical.” What happened?

It’s interesting because I think I went through the same experience that Sean Penn and J/P HRO went through.

Sean went down there with the idea that he was going to be able to bring medical supplies as a one-month mission. But as he distributed medical supplies and provided treatment for cholera at a displacement camp, that camp was gradually becoming a community. Sean and his organization became central to medical relief, rubble removal, schools, community programs – and once you’re in, you’re in. When the emergency is over, that’s when you can really develop communities.

I fell into this thing the same way. You get yourself involved in all of these activities and you realize, in both your ethical duty and your personal commitment, you can’t just pull out.

You don’t just feel like you have to stay – you want to.

Matt O’Connell is a member of the Board of Directors for J/P HRO and the President of VITA North America.

Matt O’Connell, Jep Paschal, and J/P HRO have been supported by Henry Schein and Henry Schein Orthodontics through the company’s corporate social responsibility program, Henry Schein Cares. Most recently, Henry Schein Orthodontics provided more than $14,500 worth of equipment and supplies to support the clinic in Delmas 32.