Oral health has been the bridesmaid for so long. It’s been promised so many invitations to the party, but somehow the cheque is always in the mail (just to mix my metaphors completely).
This sorry tale doesn’t find a happy ending in the budget. There’s instead another promise – of “more significant reform next year”.
But there is a step forward – $53 million over four years to introduce a voluntary dental internship year, to provide support for up to 150 internship places, as well as mentoring roles, targeted at public dental health facilities. (The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission recommended internships for graduating dentists and oral health professionals as important in expanding the public dental workforce, as well as providing broader clinical experience and training.)
The Government has also pledged to establish a National Advisory Council on Dental Health.
Just for the record, here is some of what the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission had to say:
Improving access to dental health care is our fourth key priority for improving access and equity. We recommend that all Australians should have universal access to preventive and restorative dental care, and dentures, regardless of people’s ability to pay. This should occur through the establishment of the ‘Denticare Australia’ scheme. Under the ‘Denticare Australia’ scheme, people will be able to select between private or public dental health plans. ‘Denticare Australia’ would meet the costs in both cases. The additional costs of Denticare could be funded by an increase in the Medicare Levy of 0.75 per cent of taxable income.
The Commission noted that nearly one third of all Australian adults avoid or delay visiting the dentist due to costs; there are more than 650,000 people on public dental waiting lists; and the dental health of children is worsening.
It said that basic dental care is unaffordable for many Australians, and that the absence of early intervention for common, preventable oral diseases such as tooth decay and gum disease results in thousands of avoidable hospital admissions. Those who cannot afford to see a private dentist often wait two years to access care through the public dental system.
Meanwhile, the budget documents also contain this promise: “The Government is determined to address the long-term challenges in dental health and position the system for reform in the future.”
It’s now almost two years since the NHHRC recommendations. Clearly, the Government has had many other competing priorities on its health plate.
But it’s hard to imagine that oral health will ever capture political attention in the same way that mental health has.
Of course, if you think in terms of people rather than in terms of diseases and professional silos, it’s entirely likely that many of the people with chronic mental health problems also have difficulty accessing dental care…
** Plagiarism warning. The Croakey headline is borrowed from one in the NHHRC report, A health care system without ‘teeth’