While many Australians living in major cities have accessible and reliable dental care, those living in drought stricken regional, rural and remote centres are suffering greatly from a drought of a different kind, not often heard of or referred to.
The Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association (ADOHTA) is calling upon governments both federally and at a state and territory level to consider ways of improving access to oral health care to people in these areas, saying that more needs to be done for those living outside of major capital cities.
ADOHTA President, Ms Hellene Platell, says "We really need to see some work or support being given to those people and/or practitioners who live in these areas in order to ensure they have access to fair and equitable dental care similar to that of metropolitan dwellers."
Recent reports have cited a lack of visiting oral health services in many rural and remote locations across Australia with some ranging from no visiting dental services at all to once a month.
Ms Platell says that the government needs to look to a cooperative approach in which General Practitioners in these areas are able to utilise the Oral Health Practitioners (OHPs) (dental therapists, oral health therapists and dental hygienist) to ensure the better health outcomes and quality of life for patients.
"Whilst the numbers of OHPs are fairly evenly distributed across metropolitan, regional, outer regional, remote and very remote locations, the level of care provided and a recent report on dental workforce in Australia show that the current system isn't working and it needs to be addressed."
Ms Platell goes on to explain that whilst a number of OHPs are employed in public dental services based in regional and remote areas, there are a number of issues surrounding workforce underutilisation.
"What we are finding is that while our members are based in these communities, many General Practitioners who are often queried for dental advice or dental issues are unable to work with these qualified professionals."
"This is primarily due to the lack of clarity and consistency in state and territory government policies that establish that OPHs can provide restorative treatment, for example providing fillings or radiograph and assessment."
Ms Platell says state and territory governments should explore and support a formal cooperation/relationship between medicos and OHPs as a cost effective way to ensure that all Australians have access to and are receiving the best dental care possible.
"There are a number of situations where our members work closely with locally based General Practitioners and specialists to assist in providing dental services to patients."
"For example, whilst our members are not qualified to conduct a permanent tooth extraction they are able to take a radiograph, assess and administer local anaesthetic and then the doctor can remove the tooth, working closely with a dentist via video or teleconference in extremely rural and remote locations."
"This saves the patient having to wait weeks in pain for the dentist's next visit, having several courses of antibiotics and the doctor is more confident in helping the patient."
Ms Platell says Australia has invested in building the capacity of OPHs by advancing their training and education (three year bachelor degrees) and since 2010, registering them nationally through the Australian Health Professionals Registration Agency.
"We have recently been in consultation with the federal government and look forward to engaging the relevant state and territory counterparts in the near future to see what can be done to address this issue and also the utilisation of the OHP workforce overall throughout Australia."
"We believe that OPHs can be supported to work in ways that make a greater contribution to improving the oral and general health of Australians, both in our cities and in rural and regional areas."