13 Mar 2019

Health experts call for dental health reform in NZ

4:06 pm on 13 March 2019

Some dentists say it is time for a stocktake of the oral health problems adults are facing and what actually needs to be done to solve them.

no caption

Photo: 123RF

A South Auckland emergency clinic is seeing more patients with serious problems with their teeth and welfare groups say some low-income earners are taking dental care into their own hands - pulling out their own teeth.

Dentist Scott Waghorn, and owner of nine practices, said a huge number of New Zealanders could not afford regular checks-ups.

"The biggest thing that we see is people that put off having teeth pulled out and/or having treatments in a timely fashion.

"That leads to people having huge infections in their mouths which I've seen, many times, led to hospitalisation for a week or more."

Auckland District Health Board said increasing demand on its emergency oral health services had led it to introduce a phone booking system in 2016 to stop patients lining up for hours outside its clinic.

Waitematā DHB chief executive Dale Bramley told an advisory committee last month the Ministry of Health was "considering how the dental service could be included in the public health service, and that the DHB boards should support".

The committee recommended both the Auckland DHB and Waitematā DHB support "comprehensive dental care access for all New Zealanders as part of [the] public health system".

Dr Waghorn said that was fantastic and he had been in touch with the head of Waitematā DHB to offer his support.

"It would be much better off to fund and support people when their toothache is in the early stages and get it dealt with than wait for it to become a horrible, septic mess, face swollen and then to be hospitalised.

"We just feel there needs to be a bit of an overhaul, a bit of a re-think, and basically a really full assessment of where we are now and some sort of a plan moving forward."

He said it was time for a working group to get together and sort out a long-term strategy for getting on top of oral health care.

"For example, some brave people came up with the idea of a smokefree New Zealand by 2025, so there has to be a similar dental goal for New Zealand. Once we've got to that, figuring out how to get there is the easy part."

Dr Waghorn said dentists needed help reducing the cost of providing dentistry through subsidies, lower compliance costs or removing GST.

Arish Naresh chairs the Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association. Part of the problem, he said, was that it was not clear how bad things really were.

"The last oral health survey was done in 2009 and the last oral health strategy was in 2008, so we are 11 years on from the last strategic piece of work in the area of oral health."

Mr Naresh said there needed to be better leadership in the sector.

"I think it's time the key stakeholders got together with funding from relevant ministries to ensure that we have a cross sector discussion on how to address the oral health needs of our population."

"That will define what the workforce of the future should look like and the model of care that's required to meet the challenges of the population."

Health Minister David Clark acknowledged people were dealing with what he called "third world health conditions" as a result of bad oral health and inability to access treatment.

However, he said change was unlikely before the 2020 election.