Free dental clinic makes positive impact throughout community
DUNEDIN, New Zealand: Many of the issues around oral health in New Zealand are related to the cost of care. People at the lower end of the socio-economic scale are often worst affected, and for this reason, University of Otago dental student Jamie Marra and Gore-based dentist Dr Haneen Alaynan organised a free community dental clinic to help patients get their oral health back on track.
The initiative took place every Sunday for six weeks at the university’s new Clinical Services Building. A large group of volunteers treated more than 50 patients, and the positive impact was overwhelming. “It’s been amazing. There have been tears of ‘thanks’, hugs and hand-written cards,” said Marra.
While education, diet and access do come into play, the reality is that, owing to New Zealand’s high cost of living, particularly for low-income families, trips to the dentist are often not even considered. According to Marra, one patient had not been to the dentist in 30 years. Having needed five extractions, four fillings, three sessions of root canal therapy and a scaling, he said that the treatment had changed his life.
As reported by Dental Tribune International, a recent US survey confirmed the connection between oral health and confidence. In the study referred to in the article, researchers noted that insecurities about smiles and oral health had a direct impact on employment opportunities for many of the people included in the survey.
This was also demonstrated by the information coming from those patients who decided to accept the offer of help from the free community clinic and take another positive step forward in their lives. From their comments, it was clear that there is a need for more affordable care. “We have had patients who have been trying to find jobs, but who were struggling going to interviews with blackened tooth stumps—and they are now walking out from our clinic with smiles,” explained Marra.
According to Dr Jonathan Broadbent, associate professor of dental public health at the University of Otago, the cost of treatment had it been performed in a private practice would have been close to NZ$70,000. “The fact that so many people need this kind of help demonstrates the problems with accessing dental care in New Zealand,” he noted.
In a 2018 Dental Tribune International article, it was reported that almost 50% of all New Zealand adults do not go to the dentist because it is too expensive. The current oral health model delivers high-quality services through private practices. New Zealand Dental Association CEO Dr David Crum noted that, beyond that, there is very little other service provision.
To provide the funds needed for this recent initiative, Marra and Alaynan established a running club called “Run with Heart”. By participating in the Dunedin Marathon, members of the club raised around NZ$6,000. Additional funding came from a US$10,000 grant from the Wrigley Company Foundation and the New Zealand Dental Association Community Service Grants programme. Support from the Faculty of Dentistry’s clinical director, Dr Don Schwass, and acting dean, Prof. Karl Lyons, made it possible for them to use the Clinical Services Building, and this was also crucial to the project’s success.
That success meant patients left with a feeling of inclusion. “They left not just with smiles, but with the feeling that they are included in the oral healthcare system. We are going to keep these patients in the system by recalling them so they don’t fall back through the cracks,” said Marra.
However, despite its success, the future of the programme is still unclear, and Broadbent noted: “Charitable volunteering demonstrates the high degree of social accountability among our dental students. However, charity is not a sustainable way to do public health. There is no guarantee the project will run again or be scaled-up in future.”