There are marked inequalities in oral health in Australia. In particular, people living in remote and rural Australia experience poor oral health at significantly higher rates than the general population.
Research shows that a healthy mouth is linked to a healthy body.
Good oral health contributes positively to physical, mental and social wellbeing; conversely, poor oral health can have deleterious impacts on speech, sleep, productivity, self-esteem, psychological and social wellbeing, relationships and general quality of life. Poor oral health is more likely to be present in individuals with poor general health and vice versa.
A comprehensive research report by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in 2015 showed that oral disease, particularly when left untreated, is associated with certain cardiovascular diseases; respiratory illnesses; and other chronic diseases including endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart), stroke, aspiration pneumonia, diabetes, and kidney disease.
People in remote and rural areas have: higher rates of decayed, missing or filled adult teeth or baby teeth; higher rates of gum disease; and more potentially preventable hospitalisations from oral disease.
In remote and rural Australia, there are few dental services available and where services exist it is difficult to retain staff. There may be few permanent services, sporadic provision of temporary services and specialist services may be unavailable. Other barriers to good oral health for those living in remote and rural areas are the high cost of dental treatment, lack of transport and long distances to access treatment, and the lack of culturally appropriate services.
Fundamental to improving oral health outcomes in remote and rural Australia is the provision of timely and accessible dental services.
The RFDS is working to reduce barriers and make access to dental services in remote and rural areas easier, taking up philanthropic and other opportunities, and utilising its service delivery platform to establish RFDS dental services throughout Australia.
RFDS dental services currently operate in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Services in each state operate through an outreach model from RFDS bases, providing mobile fly-in fly-out or drive-in drive-out services, equipment and/or staff to provide regular services to people living in underserved remote and rural communities.
To date, RFDS dental services have been well-received and attended, with more than 20,000 Australians received dental care from the RFDS between 2013 and 2015. However, in most of the rural and remote locations where these dentalservices are offered, demand consistently exceeds supply. High levels of need have been demonstrated among both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people.
In the 2016 Federal election campaign, Senator Fiona Nash committed $11 million over two years (2016-17 and 2017-18) from the Commonwealth Government, for the RFDS to continue providing its current suite of dental services, and to expand its services.
The funding is enabling the RFDS to establish dental services for more remote and rural Australians in underserved areas from January 2017.
This is good news for remote and rural Australians – for their oral health, as well as for their overall health.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service is Chief Partner for the 14th National Rural Health Conference.