Dental Health

‘There is no clearer indicator of socioeconomic status in Australia than the state of people’s teeth.’ Those are not my words; they are the words of Tony McBride, CEO of the Health Issues Centre. They are words that ring true, particularly in the electorate of Blaxland, and they ring loud and clear because of the neglect of the last decade. A recent study by the National Advisory Committee on Oral Health found that children in low socioeconomic groups experience twice as many incidences of tooth decay as those in high socioeconomic groups.

In the decade since the Howard government abolished the Commonwealth dental program, the public dental waiting list has skyrocketed from 380,000 to 650,000; average waiting times have increased fourfold, from six months to 27 months; and hospitalisation rates for children under five with severe dental problems have increased by 91 per cent.

Our public dental health system is ailing. Last week I toured Westmead dental hospital in Sydney’s west and met with dentists at the coalface of the crisis. Under the Howard government’s watch, the dental workforce was allowed to run critically short. By 2010, there will be a shortfall of 1,500 dental staff in our public system. Only 10 per cent of the dental workforce is in the public system, but they are required to treat almost half of the population. Their task is made more difficult because they are also treating those with the most severe and complicated problems.

In its first 100 days the Rudd government introduced two new programs to start addressing the crisis in dental health. In 11 years the Howard government introduced one program, and only expanded it in its dying days, the dying days of a government fearing electoral defeat. The Rudd government’s programs will allocate half a billion dollars over three years. Over the same period the Howard government’s program only paid out $2.6 million. That is half a billion dollars compared with $2.6 million. The difference in dollars and the difference between the two parties is stark.

The re-establishment of the Commonwealth dental program means many more people will now have access to dental health-people like Michael Cross. I met Michael during the election campaign. He had been waiting since July 2004 for a set of dentures. Thirty per cent of Australians cannot afford private dental care, and Michael is one of them. He had been forced to wait with 650,000 other Australians on the public dental waiting list. Michael told me that life without a decent set of teeth had been very tough. It affected his ability to eat and make friends. I brought his plight to the attention of the local media, and we have been able to get him a new set of dentures. He tells me they have changed his life. People want to talk to him. There are a lot more Michael Crosses out there.

The sad story of dental neglect starts young in my electorate. A few weeks ago I visited Old Guildford Public School. The principal told me that during a nationwide school dental audit she was handed a list of names of children who needed urgent dental care. The list was three pages long. Twenty children on the list needed to go under general anaesthetic to have their teeth fixed. The principal, Kay Campbell, asked the dental nurse if these children were in pain. The dental nurse told her, ‘They are far beyond pain’-children as young as five years old.

In my first speech I told the House I believe education is ‘the great equaliser in an unequal world’. But it is hard to concentrate in a classroom when you have a toothache or an abscess. In the last 10 years the rate of tooth decay amongst five-year-olds has jumped 21 per cent. The Howard government failed these children. Our job now is to help them. Our dental health system needs a government with vision, a government that understands the real health and social benefits of investing in dental care. I am pleased to see the Rudd government is heading in that direction.

The place to start is with prevention: a ‘healthy kids check’ when kids start school, and the teen dental program. The objectives are worthy, but the test of all good policies is not in their design but in the outcomes they produce-how many Michael Crosses they help, how many children at Old Guildford Public School need urgent dental care in five years time.
We can make a difference for places like Blaxland. We can educate our children and we can make sure they are healthy enough to be educated.’