Dental system labelled an 'enormous mess'

“Glaring inadequacies” in dental care for older Australians must be addressed by the next federal government, urges the Australian Dental Association (ADA).

It says the election is a golden opportunity to address the “enormous mess” that the dental system is in.

“We don’t want this election to be another Groundhog Day where no advances are made righting this appalling situation,” says ADA president Dr Mark Hutton.

Read: No funding for dental, housing or aged care in ‘sugar hit’ budget

The group’s wishlist includes:

  • establish a Dental Benefits Scheme that provides older Australians with a capped entitlement to subsidised oral health services to address immediate needs
  • ensure all over-75s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 55 and residents of aged care facilities get a mandatory and reportable oral health assessment
  • overhaul the Aged Care Quality Standards so providers must meet oral care standards, as urged by the aged care royal commission
  • implement core oral health study units in certificate III aged care courses to ensure staff are equipped to meet oral hygiene needs of residents.

The ADA says these “glaring inadequacies” in the aged care sector often result in residents going for days without anyone brushing their teeth or dentures, painful conditions being untreated, insufficient visits from dental staff and lack of training for time-poor staff.

Read: Seven signs you need to see a dentist

The association believes the solution to the funding crisis for dental care for older Australians is in the adoption of its Seniors Dental Benefits Schedule (SDBS) as agreed on by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in its final report.

An SDBS would fund dental care for people in residential care and those receiving an Age Pension.

Council on the Ageing (COTA) chief executive Ian Yates says the issue has been in the “not quite” basket for too long.

“Bad teeth and gums are expensive, but not fixing them is even more expensive,” he said.

“The health of far too many older Australians is being damaged by the lack of access to timely, affordable, high quality dental care.

“Dental health really should be part of Medicare.

“There is public dental care, but they really only deal with emergency situations, in terms of the adult population … and they have long waiting lists.”

Read: Your dentist really wants you to know this

The waiting lists have been further affected by a COVID-related backlog. For example, as of December 2021, the Victorian Agency for Health Information stated that wait times for general dental care in Victoria had blown out to just over two years and it could take up to a year to see a specialist.

COTA claims that more than 60,000 older Australians are hospitalised every year due to preventable oral health conditions and according to the Grattan Institute each year about 2 million Australians delay treatment or simply don’t go to the dentist because of the cost.

A Grattan Institute report into dental costs stated that as most spending on dental care comes straight out of patients’ pockets, people who can’t afford to pay don’t get dental care unless they go on long waiting lists for public care.

“There’s no compelling medical, economic or legal reason to treat the mouth so differently from the rest of the body,” the report says.

“The consequence of this is widespread poor oral health.

“About a quarter of Australian adults say they avoid some foods because of the condition of their teeth; for low-income people, it’s about a third.”

The issue of cost is further compounded by the fact dental services are not regulated like healthcare and as such dentists can charge what they want.

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Written by Jan Fisher