So who’d be a dentist?

It’s the final day of Dental Health Week. The Australian Dental Association has valuable information on its website about the need to brush twice daily – for more than 30 seconds – floss regularly and play by the (dentists’) rules when it comes to eating and drinking. But we thought it timely to talk with dentist Steven Colman, who has been in the business for 45 years.

We left the sensible questions for later and started with …

Why would you want to be a dentist?
You want the real answer? I did my matriculation in Melbourne in 1967. I was in the first year when you could change your university preference after the results came out. Before that, you put in your application in October and no matter what the results, you were stuck with that.

Anyway, I was with two friends at the Mt Buffalo Chalet and we’d all done pretty well. One bloke had wanted to get into medicine and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to get in so he got on the train back to Melbourne, went to Monash University and found out he had got in. He came back with the university handbook, which in those days was about three millimetres thick. These days, it’s about 30 centimetres thick. I had actually put down that I wanted to do medicine because I’d done a science course. In those days if you did science, that’s what you did – medicine. Leafing though this book – the courses were listed alphabetically – I got to D for dentistry and I said to the other guy who was there, who also wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, ‘If I do dentistry, will you?’ He said yes and we did – because I didn’t have a reason not to.

I studied for five years, started working in 1973 and have been at the same place ever since. I’m 68. I’m in my 45th year. I’ve seen a few families come and go, plenty of them.

Is it physically tiring – standing, sitting, twisting, pulling teeth?
When I did my training, dentists used to stand. I’ve never stood since I started working, I always sit.

In the old days, you could always pick a dentist from behind because they had a twisted spine. And they all had back problems. One of our lecturers was the head of the physiotherapy department – he was also a colonel in the army. He told us, ‘I’m going to tell all you bastards what I’m been telling everyone for 30 years. None of you will listen to me, but everyone in time will wish you did because you’ll end up with back problems. And if you don’t want to end up with back problems you should go and find a bar (at which point everyone paid attention) and just hang for 10 minutes a day.’ He was right, no one listened but everyone later wished they had.

What’s the best development you’ve seen?
Fluoride. Melbourne started fluoridating its water supply in 1976. I started work in 1973 and most kids you saw then would end up having two or three or four fillings. That was the norm for about the first seven years of my working life and then, in about 1980, the four-year-olds coming into the practice had nothing wrong with their teeth. The change was dramatic. It was unbelievably dramatic how fluoride helped – though there are still people who are against it.

What advice do you have for those aged 55-plus?
Most people aged 55 or more have generally got a heavily filled mouth. The teeth become more brittle with time and you get to a certain point where they start breaking. Certainly by the time you get to 75-plus, that happens a lot.

I have a lot of older patients and you see there’s a point in time where the teeth all start to break down. There is a use-by date for every tooth, but perhaps fortunately for our age group, we’re unlikely to live long enough to see that day.

If things start breaking down, you may need to spend a decent amount of money to fix things. Eighty-year-olds generally don’t want to spend a lot of money, so we’re often patching things up.

A lot of people have got dentures and they wear out too and have to be remade. I saw someone this year, a 90-year-old, who had a full set of dentures. She’d had all her teeth pulled out at 14 – as happened.

With the advice and treatment that’s available now, if you look after your teeth, you’ll have them to the end. Although, invariably with the ageing process, people become less capable.

How important is dental health to general wellbeing?
Way back, if people had a problem that the medical world couldn’t diagnose, the experts said it was caused by the teeth. When I was going though my course, we were told there was nothing in our mouth that could cause general health problems. They stuck with that line for 30 years then reversed it. Maybe that happened after they found bacteria – that could only have come from the mouth – in damaged heart valves. There is a recognised direct link between your mouth and your general health and wellbeing.

Do you believe there should be a government-subsidised Medicare-type scheme for dentistry?
There was a scheme a few years back where doctors could refer people they thought needed dental work. It only lasted about three years because – for various reasons – it was costing too much.

But yes, a dental scheme would be good. There are two sides to a national health scheme. The treatment can be abused by the health practitioners, and the patients, if it’s free for them, they don’t value it. Those systems don’t always work.

Maybe a Medicare-type scheme would work though. If patients are partially contributing to it, they might be more interested in the quality.

So how does a dentist in South Yarra end up with a farm in Kyneton?
Not sure how I fell into that. It was never my intention. I bought the land and somehow my neighbour ended up buying me some sheep because he said I couldn’t eat the grass. I got stuck with these sheep – now I’ve got 3500. I quite enjoy it, although I’m only there every second weekend for a day and a bit and I have a wife who hates it. If I wanted to spend more time there, I’d have to get a new wife.

Any plans to retire?
I work four and a half days a week. I might look at cutting back to three days a week and spend more time farming. I’ve got no intention of not being a dentist though.

Do you have a story to share with YourLifeChoices? Or any other observations? Know any interesting characters? Email [email protected]. We’d like to hear from you.

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Written by Janelle Ward

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