Something to smile about: Improving oral health in rural Victoria through community-academic partnerships.

  • Three people at an event

Left to right: Hamid Ghadheri (West Wimmera Health Service, Oral Health Promotion Officer), Professor Jane Mills (Dean, La Trobe Rural Health School) and Associate Professor Virginia Dickson-Swift (Principal Research Fellow (Oral Health), Violet Vines Centre for Rural Health Research).

Associate Professor Virginia Dickson-Swift (Oral Health Stream Lead, Violet Vines Marshman Centre for Rural Health Research), Dorothy McLaren (Health Promotion Manager, West Wimmer Health Service), Hamid Ghadheri (Oral Health Promotion Officer, West Wimme
La Trobe University

People living in regional and remote areas tend to have worse oral health than those in cities. As remoteness increases, oral health generally declines. In remote and rural Australia, communities face higher rates of tooth decay, tooth loss, and gum disease, along with poorer access to affordable and regular dental care. They often only visit the dentist when they have issues, don't go regularly, and some may not even have a regular dentist. On top of that, they have higher rates of preventable hospital admissions for dental problems. These issues can be made worse by things like long travel times, limited transportation options, challenges in finding and keeping dental professionals in rural areas, and less access to preventive measures like fluoridated water.

Inequities in oral health status for people living in rural and remote communities has been recognised in significant prevention-focused documents by the World Health Organization and the World Dental Federation.  In Australia, the National Oral Health Plan, "Healthy Mouths Healthy Lives," acknowledges that many oral diseases are preventable and that more must be done to address the inequities between rural and metropolitan communities. In rural Australia, where access to oral health facilities is limited and the cost of living is higher, innovative initiatives are essential to address oral health issues. The absence of dental professionals and oral health promoting infrastructure (like water fluoridation) further exacerbates these challenges and highlights the need to work closely with rural communities to find innovative solutions to improve oral health.

For over five decades, West Wimmera Health Service (WWHS) has been a cornerstone of healthcare provision in western Victoria, providing high-quality health and social care to a population of more than 22,000. The geographic landscape covered by WWHS spans over 22,000 square kilometres (11% of the Victorian land mass) spanning four local government areas (LGAs) including the towns of Nhill, Goroke, Jeparit, Kaniva, Minyip, Murtoa, Natimuk, Rainbow, and Rupanyup.

Like many rural communities nationwide, those within the WWHS catchment face many health challenges including poor oral health. To deal with this, the health promotion team at WWHS partnered with researchers from the Violet Vines Centre for Rural Health Research based at La Trobe University's Rural Health School to seek evidence-based solutions for oral health improvement across the catchment.

Over the past 12 months they have been engaged in community consultations, surveys, and oral health projects led by oral health promotion workers dental students which have allowed the team to develop a comprehensive understanding of the communities' oral health priorities. These priorities include affordable and accessible dental services, oral health promotion and education programs and advocacy for improved oral health promoting infrastructure (like water fluoridation).

Through this community-academic partnership they have facilitated a deep understanding of the needs of the communities and their priorities for action. They continue to work closely with the communities to develop locally based solutions and achieve better oral health for all. 

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