For hundreds of people living in the expansive Katherine region, visiting a dentist is a venture filled with unavoidable hurdles.
Long drives on unsealed roads, if a car is available, and finding accommodation in a town buckling under a housing crisis add to a long list a person might have to navigate for an appointment many would take for granted.
While Katherine dentist Drew Chea says he has made significant inroads in remote communities over the past two years as one of the only travelling dentists, access to the Katherine clinic remains one of the biggest barriers to good oral health.
“It means teeth issues that could be treated early on are being left to crisis point,” he said.
“Most of the people who come in from community are in such severe pain so they will make that commitment, otherwise it is low on the priority list.”
Dr Chea travels to some of Australia’s most remote communities for about one week per month. This equates to each community getting a week of free dental once a year.
While that sometimes means the Katherine clinic is left in the lurch, up to 50 people living in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities are able to get painful teeth issues fixed up.
“There is a massive workload, for the population size I see a lot of people in that week,” he said.
“Dental is not covered by patient transfer, so it could be a three or four hour drive into Katherine if that person has a car, or an expensive bus ticket. Then they have to find accommodation.
“It is a multi-factorial issue, oral health probably isn’t going to be a priority if you’re not getting good food and water.”
The Australian Medical Association’s 2019 Report Card on Indigenous Health focused on oral health.
It uncovered a health system failing people living in communities across Australia and a lack of Indigenous dental practitioners.
“The state of oral health among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in Australia is unacceptable,” AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said.
“Good oral health is fundamental to overall health and wellbeing. It allows people to eat, speak, and socialise without pain, discomfort, or embarrassment.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-school and primary school-aged children are more likely to be hospitalised for dental problems, and are less likely to receive preventive care, and adults and children from Indigenous backgrounds have much higher levels of untreated tooth decay.”
The report found Indigenous adults and children have dental disease at two or three times the rate of their non-Indigenous counterparts in urban, rural, and remote communities, and are five times more likely to have missing teeth.
The report recommends the government commit to ensuring 90 per cent of Australians have access to fluoridated water.
“A significant proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lives without access to affordable, culturally appropriate dental care,” Dr Bartone said.
“Unfortunately, governments see oral health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as discretionary and short-term. Funding is piecemeal and arbitrary.”
The AMA report found in 2017 there was less than 100 Indigenous registered dental practitioners in Australia, a factor with ripple effect issues.
“We know that Indigenous people have better health outcomes when they receive culturally safe health care in a service where staff understand and respect them,” Dr Bartone said.
He said the AMA is calling on all levels of government to “treble” their investment in the Puggy Hunter Memorial Scholarship Scheme – a scheme which provides scholarships for Indigenous people studying an entry level health course, and to set a goal of 780 Indigenous dental practitioners by 2040.
“We urge all political leaders, at all levels of Government, to take note of this Report Card, and be motivated to work in partnership with Aboriginal peak bodies to find effective solutions and implement the recommendations,” Dr Bartone said.
*Original article online at https://www.katherinetimes.com.au/story/6547062/oral-health-unacceptable-with-little-access-to-clinics/