Tooth decay remains one of the most prevalent health problems in Tasmania, even though it is largely preventable.
However, for the past 18 months a dental outreach program facilitated by the Royal Flying Doctor service has been helping to bridge the gap for oral health in rural and remote areas.
The Mobile Dental Care program has been operating at Circular Head in North West Tasmania since April last year and is now expanding into the state’s North-East.
Made possible by a Commonwealth funding commitment, the program marks a first for the RFDS in Tasmania and serves as an extension to already existing dental outreach services offered at Flinders Island.
With teams comprising of both dentists and oral health specialists, to date the program has treated 1273 patients and delivered more than 16,500 free dental treatments to people in need.
With a fixed surgery established at the Circular Head Aboriginal Corp and a burgeoning relationship with community members, program manager Nicole Henty said the service was transforming lives.
“A lot of the patients have been dealing with severe social isolation,” she said.
“So through different parts of their life, they may have lost the majority of all of their teeth, or had root stumps left in their mouth which they were obviously embarrassed about.
“One young man, when we gave him back his smile, his children turned around and said – ‘dad, we have never actually seen you smile before’.
“You can really see the impacts.
“We aren’t just giving people their smiles back, this program is giving them their lives back.”
Research shows that dental disease is more prevalent in the elderly, people living in rural locations as well as Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders.
Run in collaboration with local service providers to compliment current programs offered through Oral Health Services Tasmania and the Australian Dental Association, the Mobile Dental Care program applies a holistic approach to treatment.
Recently acknowledged with the Building Communities Award at the Launceston Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, the program also engages with the region’s schools, early learning centres and aged care homes, offering preventative screenings and oral health promotion.
RFDS Tasmania chief executive John Kirwan said access to services remained one of the leading factors contributing to care.
“Oral health is one of the only areas not covered by Medicare,” he said.
“So we know most people will fund their own oral health, either with or without private insurance input. Therefore access is a big issue, which means people are more likely to delay treatment.
“But poor oral health is not just about your teeth and your mouth.
“As the research shows, if you don’t do anything about it, it will lead to heart disease and stroke, respiratory disease, arthritis and diabetes.
“And it is a particular problem for rural and remote areas – so it is a case of access.”
Mr Kirwan said Tasmania faced a unique set of circumstances, contributing to its healthcare challenges – areas the RFDS aimed to address.
“There are a couple of demographic aspects that are very challenging for us,” he said.
“We are the last state in Australia where the majority of the population live outside the capital city.
“Our view is, we will see everyone because that is our model. The model varies a little bit, but it goes back very much to the original ethos of the flying doctor service – if you are dealing with these remote and rural areas, if at all possible you should try and deal with it holistically.”
Circular Head Aboriginal Corp chief executive Di Baldock said the program’s presence in the region had gone far beyond “just a visit to the dentist”.
“We have seen within the community, a real level of empowerment emerge,” she said.
“It is something that has become so popular, simply by word of mouth and people sharing their positive experiences.
“Most of it comes down to access to services, which is something we have always struggled with in the past.
“We had one client, who had been living with poor oral health for more than 15 years.
“When you think about the impact that has on a person, both physically and mentally, being able to overcome that is really significant. To have this oral health service here, established in the community, and supporting and complimenting our existing services – it has made such a difference on many levels.”