Navigating rural and remote oral health in South Australia

  • Rural road
  • Mural painted silos
  • sunset shoreline with pine trees
Rural and Remote Oral Health Coalition
Paulina Lee
Project Manager

Localised access to oral health services has always been a challenge for residents in rural and remote areas. Awareness of the impacts on the medical and hospital sectors of poor oral health is not widely recognised. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality in small rural and towns, borders and small communities were shut to the outside world highlighting the over-reliance of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) and delocalised health services in both general and allied health services. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges of providing services are multi-faceted; huge geographical coverage with small populations, unsustainable and unrealistic for both private and public oral health providers, the mouth often being left out as part of the conversation about the body, lack of sufficient and adequate funding, just to name a few.

In South Australia, decision-makers have taken a step forward to change the narrative of rural and remote oral health. Recognising the need to have a coordinated and multi-sectoral approach to the challenge of oral health service provision in rural and remote regions, partners have come together to form the Rural and Remote Oral Health Coalition (RROHC). The RROHC Steering Committee is represented by:

  • SA Dental Service
  • Adelaide Dental Hospital
  • Adelaide Dental School, The University of Adelaide
  • Eyre and Far North Local Health Network
  • Country SA Primary Health Network
  • Australia Dental Association SA
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)
  • Jeanie Pty Ltd.

What makes this partnership unique is the membership which consists of the primary health sector, the public and private oral health sector, the University sector and the hospital sector. Sectors that have historically worked in silos have come together with the simple but important aim of improving access to oral health services for residents of rural and remote regions. With the SA government in support, funding was established for a Project Manager responsible for project scoping, planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation. 

Royal Flying Doctor Service, Senior Dentist, Dr Vaibhav Garg says the RFDS strongly supports the work of RROHC.

“The complex health needs of remote communities in South Australia require new ways of working. This includes integration of primary health services such as oral health in chronic disease management.

“The pandemic has created a stark and direct link between oral health, chronic disease and adverse outcomes from COVID-19. This project will be invaluable in better informing our work in this area to support our remote communities to improve health outcomes and protect against the worst outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Vaibhav.

The first project – service mapping and problem identification is a testament to the commitment of partners on the RROHC steering committee. Data sharing between partners and coordination has, for the first time, been meaningful, resulting in the development of an interactive and comprehensive map displaying areas of needs based on population data, service provision and demographics. Further to that, consultation in rural and remote areas of need with hospitals, local councils, schools, dental practices and community has allowed for deeper understanding of local context and the feasibility and support of proposed pilot projects for the regions from the grassroots up.

“RROHC provides a foundation to develop new solutions to support rural and remote communities and workforce. By working together, we learn faster and can address complex problems to benefit rural South Australians,” said Jeanie Pty Ltd CEO Dr Cindy Dennis.

The RROHC group is now well established, priority action plans are being drafted for implementation and partners are positive that the results will be able to show improvements in the future rural and remote oral health.         

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