A few hundred dentists and dental students protested outside the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh on Tuesday calling for the Health Ministry to overturn a recent proclamation allowing dental nurses to operate their own private clinics.
Dental nurses, who study basic dentistry in a three-year program, “do not have enough education to run a private clinic,” according to Phorn Pechchenda, a University of Health Sciences student in her sixth year of a seven-year dental program.
“We just want to stop the law that approves the dental nurses to run a private clinic,” she said, adding that “people’s health” and the quality of care was their main concern, and not the increased competition for patients. The protesters delivered a petition, signed by more than 1,000 practicing and would-be dentists, making the same demands.
The Health Ministry released a prakas on October 16 permitting dental nurses, who have traditionally worked at government-run health facilities, to open private dental clinics under certain conditions, mainly having proper equipment to sterilize all implements and informing local officials of the services they plan to offer.
Som Vicheth, dean of the dentistry department at International University of Phnom Penh (IUPP), who teaches both dentistry and dental nursing courses, said while dental nurses are not trained to do surgery or “crowns and bridges,” they can fill gaps in rural areas of the country, where dentists tend to avoid setting up shop for lack of wealthy patients.
“Dental nurses can help poor people in the countryside where there’s no dentists,” Dr. Vicheth said, adding that they should stick to procedures that they were trained to do.
But practicing dentists and dental students from five dental schools in Phnom Penh, including members of the 400-strong Cambodia Dental Association (CDA), said nurses could not be trusted to run their own clinics.
“I don’t agree with the decision by the Ministry of Health,” said Vorn Chanchivoan, a recent dental school graduate who works at a private clinic in Phnom Penh.
“We have studied for seven years. We have to pass the national exam,” he said, adding that dentists also had to complete two years of residency work, while dental nurses were in school for three years in total.
Speaking to the protesting dentists, Council of Ministers adviser Seng Savorn said he would take the petition to an “expert group” that would send it up to Prime Minister Hun Sen. He said it would likely be up to the Health Ministry to decide whether to amend the prakas.
A Health Ministry spokesman could not be reached on Tuesday.
Yam Solita, president of the CDA, said there needed to be a robust discussion of the issue, at the very least.
“We wish the Ministry of Health will have a public debate,” Dr. Solita said on Tuesday. “If we cannot stop dental nurses from opening private clinics,” she said, patients should be able to make an informed decision “about whether to see a dentist or dental nurse.”
Kong Dararoth, a third-year student in the IUPP’s dental nursing program, said he still hoped to run his own clinic, as well as work in a government-run clinic, after he graduated.
“I’m trying to study because I want to have my own clinic, and also to work in a state clinic,” Mr. Dararoth said.
“I want to suggest that the Ministry of Health provide us with work in state clinics, which serve in remote areas.”