Dentists have a bad reputation when it comes to sensitivity towards pain but now dentists are being asked to identify a deeper pain, child abuse.
Dr Ali Al Ani is calling for mandatory training for dentists to identify signs of child abuse in patients.
Born in Baghdad, the 29-year-old grew up hearing stories of children who had been abused in the war-torn country.
Inspired by his father’s work as a paediatrician who helped diagnose and report several cases of child abuse over the years, Dr Al Ani felt morally obligated to bring awareness to his field.
Research he conducted during his undergraduate studies revealed that dentistry students had little knowledge about child abuse, its symptoms and identification methods.
The information, he says, was difficult to obtain.
“I was told it’s a tough topic and it will be exhausting to get answers, probably because people refrain from talking about it but I received a huge support from my supervisor then, assistant professor Raghad Hashim,” says Dr Al Ani.
He spent months researching and preparing questionnaires before driving across the country to distribute them at all five universities that offer dentistry majors in the country.
"It was a challenge that i was willing to take because i was driven by the hope that someone in power would pick it up and do something about it," he says.
Students from Ajman University in Ajman and Fujairah, University of Sharjah, Gulf Medical College and University of RAK Medical Sciences filled out the 23-question form and Dr Al Ani says the results were troubling.
“The results were shocking, there was a huge lack of information, absence of general knowledge and training among dentistry students in the UAE in relation to child abuse and neglect,” he says.
“They didn't know how to identify it, or what to do if faced with a case, but, the majority showed interest in knowing more and welcomed any program that would teach them to properly identify symptoms.”
His study, Child Physical Abuse: Assessment of Dental Students' Attitudes and Knowledge in United Arab Emirates - which is the first of its type to be carried out in the dentistry college - was published in the European Archives of Paediatric Dentistry in 2013, one year after he earned his BA degree.
It also won the first prize in Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi Award for culture and science in 2016.
Dr Al Ani graduated with honours from Ajman University which also awarded him and his supervisor for the research study.
At the University of Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, he continued his research for his master's degree but found the results to be no better than those in the UAE.
"Students in Germany showed the same lack of information and inability to identity abuse against children," he says.
“It’s not right, dentists should be fully trained, every person in direct contact with children must know how to identify abuse symptoms.”
His research has shown him that this is a global issue and hopes the UAE will pioneer change.
The UAE's Child Protection Law, which puts the onus on schools and medical professionals to report suspected cases of abuse, came into effect in 2016.
In September this year, the director general of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children said schools had begun calling to report suspected cases or ask for guidance.
Dr Al Ani believes all medical professionals should be trained specifically in the topic in a bid to reduce the number of unreported abuse cases.