Ending the medical-dental divide in Australia

Our teeth are one of our most crucial parts of our body – and one of the most expensive to fix. With dental care not a bulk billed health service, it can hurt our pockets more than surgeries and even cancer treatments.

Dr Lesley Russell from the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute believes it is time that medical and dental practitioners combined forces to begin a decline in tooth decay and oral disease in Australia once and for all. It is a critical area of concern yet it feels like it has been years since the government has taken notice.

She said that “medicine and dentistry remain distinct practices that have never been treated the same way by the health care system, health insurance funds, public health professionals, policymakers and the public”, and how true this is. As most of us know, if you have a dental issue, it can be difficult or even impossible to have surgery on another part of your body. This means there can be dire consequences for those of us who are struggling to make ends meet as it is and cannot afford expensive dental care.

Oral disease can ravage the rest of the body as it is connected to the rest of the body, leading to physical illness and trauma – a fact that many medical practitioners and even the government ignores.

According to a recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), our dental health has not improved in recent years. In fact, children’s baby teeth are affected by decay more than ever, as are the total adults experiencing oral problems. Over one third of adults have untreated decay and over 50 per cent of people 65 years old and older have had gum disease, with a further 20 per cent having lost one or more teeth.

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Dr Russell wrote in her article in the Medical Journal of Australia that untreated dental caries and oral disease cause eating and speaking difficulties and disrupt sleep and productivity. “Poor oral health has been linked to infective carditis, coronary heart disease, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes and aspiration pneumonia. Destruction of the soft tissues in the mouth can cause lasting disability and even death”, she said.

Oral problems go further than affecting our overall health – they can even impair our appearance and speech so much that we may lose confidence and inhibit our ability to seek employment or interact socially.

As a nation, we spent $7.857 billion on dental treatment in 2010 and 2011, with care costs exceeding $1 billion. So how can we end the medical-dental divide?

Dr Russell recommends five measures:

  • make dental and medical professionals partners in delivering health care including shared training, recognition of dental services as a part of primary care and the inclusion of dental information on patient records
  • health promotion activities related to eating well, smoking, substance misuse, breastfeeding and chronic diseases to include oral health information
  • special oral care for frail older people, people with mental illness and those on certain medication regimens
  • private health insurers to reconsider caps on dental care
  • investment in a “Dental Health Service Corps made up of dentists and dental staff, doctors, nurses, community and Aboriginal health workers and public health professionals to take oral health services and education where they are needed”
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“It is time for governments, health professionals, policymakers and community groups to put their money where their mouths are and act together to improve the oral health of all Australians, so that in the future the only gap-toothed Australian smiles are those indicating a visit from the tooth fairy”.


What do you think? Should dentistry and medicine be considered one of the same? Do we have a national issue in your eyes? How have your dental issues affected your life? Tell us below.