They might be a life necessity but it’s no secret that teeth are increasingly becoming a luxury when it comes to the cost of keeping them healthy. Between 2019 and 2020, Australians paid $4.5 billion in dental costs alone.
Dental decay is also Australia’s most preventable health problem. It is estimated that 1 in 3 adults in Australia have untreated tooth decay. 1 in 3 are also estimated to have untreated periodontitis, which is a precursor to a range of serious health issues from heart disease to Alzheimer’s, stroke, and kidney disease.
A visit or two to the dentist can easily solve both decay and periodontitis. But with most dentists working in the private sector, vulnerable groups are increasingly falling through the cracks, unable to afford the often expensive fees.
Older adults, especially those living in aged care, are among those finding it the hardest to afford dental costs amid the rising cost of living. Other vulnerable groups such as those on government benefits, low wage earners, the disabled, and Indigenous Australians have been similarly affected.
The Australian Dental Association (ADA) has put the government on notice over this glaring public health problem. They have called upon them to set up dental schemes for our most vulnerable populations including seniors – or take responsibility for the oral health decline of millions of Australians.
ADA’s new President, Dr Scott Davis, has strongly advocated for immediate action to be taken to address this problem.
“We made our case loud and clear at the Senate inquiry into dental access currently underway – prioritise setting up affordable dental schemes for seniors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the disabled and those on low wages,” he said.
Davis then explained what the ADA views as the most effective means to address the problem.
“Don’t try and shoehorn dentistry into Medicare – that would cost at least $7.6 bn a year. Instead utilise the existing Dental Benefits Act legislation and the Child Dental Benefits Schedule framework to set up a similar scheme for the nation’s 200,000 seniors in aged care. That would cost just $100 m a year which is a drop in the ocean in comparison,” he said.
“Known as the Seniors Dental Benefit Schedule, the ADA has been pushing hard for this for years. Then set up similar schemes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, for the disabled and those on low incomes,” he added.
Davis was emphatic that this would be a far cheaper solution than adding dentistry to Medicare. He said that most Australians would only require the occasional checkup and clean if this was to happen. In contrast, targeted dental benefit schemes would provide rebates for those who need them most.
The importance of oral health and its impact on overall health and well-being cannot be understated and when it comes to maintaining good oral health in your later years, Advisory Services Manager, Engagement & Advocacy Executive, Dr Sarah Raphael from the Australian Dental Association NSW Branch suggests keeping things simple at the bathroom sink.
“It’s the good old basic things – performing oral hygiene twice daily – toothbrushing with fluoride toothpaste, cleaning dentures and leaving them out at night, eating a diet low in added sugar, drinking tap water as the main drink and staying well hydrated (have a water bottle available at all times),” Raphael said.
Raphael also stresses the importance of prevention over cure and suggests regular dentist visits to stay ahead of possible problems.
“Ensuring that they have regular preventive dental visits in their senior years is the best way to avoid these consequences,” she said.