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From supporting the post-lockdown recovery to improving access to dentistry for vulnerable patients, new ADA NSW president Dr Michael Jonas is fighting for a brighter future for all. By Shane Conroy
As COVID-19 lockdowns forced many people to put non-essential dental treatments on hold, many dental practices were left with empty chairs. Once busy waiting rooms were reduced to a scattering of emergency patients, and some practices closed their doors altogether. But with state-wide lockdowns now lifted and vaccination rates in NSW climbing into the 90s, the future is starting to look just a little brighter.
It could have been much worse. Dr Michael Jonas, the new president of the Australian Dental Association (ADA) NSW, says there was a time in the early days of the second outbreak when NSW’s dental profession was at risk of being severely restricted.
“We could have got to a situation where no patients were allowed to be treated at all, and dentistry was closed down. But the ADA NSW has a very strong relationship with NSW Health and with the department’s blessing, we were able to adopt a risk-based process where practice owners were empowered to assess their own risks.”
Dr Jonas explains that during lockdown dental practitioners had to exercise their clinical judgement to determine whether a delay in dental care would lead to adverse patient outcomes, but practitioners were free to make their own decisions. Some chose to shut up shop and go on an extended break. Others continued operating through the lockdown.
ADA NSW was there to support dental practitioners through the darkest days of the pandemic—and not only their approximately 5000 members across NSW and ACT. With risks varying between Local Government Areas (LGAs), ADA NSW’s Practice Services department became an information and advice hub for all dentists.
“Our Practice Services team was constantly on the phones answering queries, and getting fresh information out of NSW Health to our members,” says Dr Jonas. “We didn’t hide that information behind a paywall for our members only. We made it public on our website. It was the right thing to do for the profession and for the public.”
Towards a brighter future
Dr Jonas is cautiously optimistic about a post-lockdown recovery. He thinks pent-up demand for the preventative and restorative treatments put off during lockdown will help dental practitioners across NSW to get back to business as usual. He also believes dental practitioners are well placed to manage any ongoing outbreaks.
Dr Jonas, who graduated from university in 1980, believes the lessons learned from previous epidemics are relevant now.
“Dentistry in this country has been practising with effective precautions since the AIDS epidemic in the 80s made us think about infection control on a large scale. We’ve been utilising personal protection equipment (PPE) for 40 years, and our normal processes work more than adequately. Of course, we need to practise heightened vigilance at the moment, but when COVID-19 becomes a memory, dentists will continue to ensure that the risk of the spread of infectious diseases is prevented or minimised.”
Until then, Dr Jonas says the Practice Services team will continue to act as an information conduit between NSW Health and the state’s dental profession, and will keep creating infection prevention and control (IPC) videos and webinar resources for members out of ADA NSW’s St Leonards production facility.
Treating the vulnerable
In addition to supporting its members through the post-lockdown recovery, Dr Jonas sees ADA NSW as an important advocate for equal access to oral health services for all.
As chair of ADA NSW’s Filling the Gap initiative, Dr Jonas is proud to say the charity has provided almost $1 million in pro bono dental treatment to vulnerable and disadvantaged patients.
“It started as a way to utilise the four operating surgeries we have at the ADA NSW facility, and has grown into a much larger network,” he says. “Dental practices around the state volunteer their facilities and services for treatment days. It’s incredibly rewarding for all who participate.”
Addressing the challenges of regional and rural dentistry is another priority for Dr Jonas’s tenure as ADA NSW president. He owned and operated a practice in Gunnedah for 30 years, before selling up and moving to Tamworth as an employed dentist.
“I’ve been working hard on rural dentistry for quite a lot of years,” he says. “It’s always about money and staffing. Getting an adequate number of practitioners into rural areas is a challenge, but it’s getting better. Rural dentistry is now a viable pathway for young dentists to start their career and set up their life.”
Equal access for all
Dr Jonas also aims to continue building on ADA NSW’s relationship with the Indigenous Dentists’ Association of Australia (IDAA).
“We’re working with the IDAA to improve oral hygiene and dental outcomes for Indigenous Australians in NSW,” he says. “Our partnership is in its infancy, but we’re helping them with their management and governance so they can get a seat at the table.”
Dr Jonas says improving dental health for the elderly and children will also remain priorities for ADA NSW under his leadership. “We’re pushing children’s dental health through the Child Dental Benefits scheme. It provides free dentistry for children—with certain restrictions—and is amazingly under-utilised,” he says.
And while ADA NSW had great success presenting to the aged care royal commission under former president Dr Kathleen Matthews, Dr Jonas says there is still much to be done on the issue: “We need everyone to understand that the more teeth you have removed as you get older, the worse your health outcomes.
“At the end of the day, we want to improve access to dentistry for all Australians,” Dr Jonas concludes. “It is extraordinarily rewarding, and the incredible energy and enthusiasm of our members keeps me going.”