Dental care should be for all
25 October 2012
In Australia, the mouth is not considered part of your body, at least for the purposes of the Medicare health care system. Patients who can't afford to see a private dentist have to wait years on the public dental waiting lists.
The University of Sydney's Hans Zoellner believes the result of this can be seen in our public hospitals. He points out that at Westmead Hospital one or two patients end up in intensive care every week unable to breathe because dental infection has spread. Yet, to the frustration of dentists, such incidents are entirely preventable if early treatment is available.
Associate Professor Zoellner, Head of Oral Pathology and Oral Medicine in the Faculty of Dentistry, is pushing for a fundamental shift in how dentistry is provided and paid for.
"At the moment public dental clinics cannot provide people the dental care they most need. Because of the long wait lists and the intense demand, public dental clinics can only provide basic dental care," Zoellner says.
"Private dental care is too expensive for many people on low incomes. I've received an email from an 82-year-old pensioner who said it costs him a week's pension to see a dentist. If he was sick he could easily see a doctor thanks to Medicare. But because he has a toothache, it means he has to choose between spending a week of his pension on a private dentist or wait in the public system.
Zoellner has been a researcher for almost two decades, and describes including Medicare in the dental system as a "game changer".
"There is a tsunami of dental issues from the ageing population washing onto our society and I think it's important that we prepare for it. Now is the time to get dental Medicare in place, before it is too late to do it in a sensible way.
"Including dental care in Medicare would increase competition among dentists, ensure there were national guidelines for best practice and free up the public system to deal with the most difficult and complex cases."
Associate Professor Zoellner says good dental care should be available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. He is therefore particularly critical of the federal government's decision to close the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme from December 2012, which he describes as a significant step towards making dental care affordable for all.
The scheme provided people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer or mental health problems access to $4250 for dental services over two years through Medicare benefits. From December these benefits will cease.
"I would encourage anyone who is passionate about making dental care available to people who need it most to sign an online petition and let your members of parliament know that this issue is important to you."
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