The future of outback dental clinics in New South Wales, which in some cases provide the only service within 800 kilometres, is in doubt due to a lack of ongoing government funding.
The Royal Flying Doctors Service (RDFS) has been providing a dentist to Bourke, Collarenebri, Goodooga and Lightning Ridge in order to address high rates of dental decay.
The towns were chosen by the RFDS because dental health in these areas was comparable to that of developing countries.
In Bourke, 97 per cent of pupils at the local primary school were found to be in need of dental work.
The Outback Oral Treatment and Health Program (TOOTH) has been paid for with philanthropic donations from Sydney businessman David Gonski, the Investec Foundation and the RFDS.
It has cost $2.5 million since its launch in 2012 but ongoing government funding is needed so it can continue to operate.
“The TOOTH program has been extended for another 16 months, so I worry what will happen after 16 months for the communities,” RFDS dentist Kah Chong said.
The RFDS said the rate of dental decay in the four towns was reduced by half since TOOTH began.
Bourke resident Fiona Smith had not seen a dentist in 20 years and now regularly visits the RFDS dental clinics.
“A lot of people I’ve been speaking to haven’t seen a dentist in a long time and they’re happy that they can just get in here and get checked out,” Ms Smith said.
Until TOOTH started, the closest dentist for some residents was an 800-kilometre round trip to Dubbo.
“If you’re having a toothache and you need to see someone it’s quite a nice [convenience] … not to have to drive five hours,” Dr Chong said.
A screening program by the RDFS at Bourke Public School found 97 per cent of pupils needed dental work.
“The percentage of kids that obviously needed dental treatment, it’s very high and we’ve got lots of kids with dental issues that we need to get resolved,” Principal Kylie Pennell said.
“[Those issues need to be resolved so] they can be engaged, they can come to school and our kids are learning.”
TOOTH benefactor Mr Gonski said he wanted to establish a program that would eventually be taken over by government.
“I was looking to develop a project with the RFDS, bring it up to a stage where it had some real impetus which could show how to do it and it could not only be done in the areas I was doing it but worked out over the state and indeed over Australia,” he said.
“This looked like a perfect thing.
“Now we’ve proven, I believe, or the people who’ve actually done it, the RFDS and the dentists, that it really works.
“So I’m hopeful that government, whether it be state and or federal, will pick up this excellent pilot that we’ve done because we’ve proven straight away that you can keep going and indeed do good work.”
The New South Wales Government declined to be interviewed.
Assistant Health Minister Pru Goward issued a statement saying she encouraged the RFDS to meet with the Centre for Oral Health Strategy to discuss the TOOTH program.