18 Apr 2024

Great Barrier Island goes without resident dentist for 8 years

8:31 pm on 18 April 2024

Joanna Piekarski (left) and husband, Ro, on Great Barrier Island.

Joanna Piekarski (left) and husband, Ro, on Great Barrier Island. Photo: RNZ / Luka Forman

Great Barrier Island is in dire need of a dentist, with some residents resorting to DIY solutions for pain relief because they cannot afford the trip to the mainland for treatment.

The island community in the Hauraki Gulf had resident dentists in the past, but the last one retired in 2016, leaving all of his dental equipment to the community.

Since then, visiting dentists have operated out of the clinic when possible, but it has been nearly a year since the last visit, and demand for dental services on the island is growing.

Joanna Piekarski has lived on Great Barrier Island for nine years.

Last year, part of her tooth broke off while she was eating dinner - leaving her with a nasty toothache.

"It got painful, and it was keeping me up at night, and the pain travelled down the nerve, right to my jaw."

Joanna has not been able to travel to the mainland for treatment because of a broken leg, so she contacted an off-island dentist friend for an at-home remedy and posted the positive results on the local Facebook page.

"People were grateful that I [had] done that, because they could be in a similar situation. In fact, someone responded to my post that during Covid, he actually had to pull a tooth of his own. And people may be in that situation if they can't get to town or can't afford."

Flights to mainland 'ridiculously expensive'

Locals could catch a flight, or a four and a half hour ferry to reach the mainland.

But the rising cost of airfares on the island made it even more difficult for people to get the help they needed, Joanna said.

"Meanwhile, everyone's teeth are deteriorating, because many people here don't have the resources to just go to town to get their teeth checked, and cleaned."

Other locals felt regular visits from a dentist were desperately needed.

"It is really hard, and it's quite expensive to get off-island just to go to the dentist, flights are like ridiculously expensive," one resident on the island said.

"It would be nice to have something here on the island, especially for older people or emergency stuff," another said.

Aotea Community Health Trustee Leonie Howie with donated dental equipment.

Aotea Community Health Trustee Leonie Howie with donated dental equipment. Photo: RNZ / Luka Forman

Community worker Lisa Eves said Work and Income funding of up to $1000 was available for people who could not afford a trip off the island.

"The most immediate dental stuff has been dealt with really well with assistance from WINZ. It's definitely a need, but the emergency dentistry has been managed quite well I think."

However, if the total cost was more than $1000, the extra money had to be paid back.

Hopes for volunteer dentists

Leonie Howie, a trustee of the community health trust, said preventative care was what the island really needed.

"We don't want the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff that WINZ is able to provide by this flying off service. We want people who have problems, to have a dentist coming at least once a month, if not once a fortnight."

The community trust put out the call to the Dental Association, and it hoped to set up a roster of volunteer dentists to service the island.

The money spent on appointments would then be used to pay for their flights and other expenses.

The hope was to attract a dentist to stay on the island long-term.

"Maybe the social enterprise is only for a period of, say, two to five years until we can prove to dentists that this could be a flourishing business for them."

Howie encouraged any dentists keen for an adventure on the island to get in touch.

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