Free for a day

coverstoryAs Australia’s socio-economic gap widens, one dentist took it upon himself to help struggling young people offering his services free for a day. Samantha Trenoweth meets a dental hero.

It’s not often that one hears of a dentist who has accrued a teenage following, but Dr David Baker has some big fans amongst Toowoomba’s youth. “He’s the nicest dentist I’ve ever met,” says one young admirer. “I was always too scared to go to a dentist but it wasn’t bad at all,” adds another. A third satisfied customer grins, and says: “Wow, I just can’t stop looking at my teeth!”

Dr Baker found these new fans back in September, when he teamed up with Toowoomba Youth Service to run a pro-bono day. On that day, he opened up his practice [Toowoomba Dental, west of Brisbane] exclusively to Youth Service clients, many of them homeless or struggling young people, and he offered his services for free. “It was really good—a very positive day,” he says. “It worked so well that we’ve decided to hold a couple of pro-bono days each year. Our plan is to work through the local [charity] services here to give them all an opportunity to bring their clients along.”

Dr Baker says that he’s always had a passion for giving back to the community and a sense of responsibility as a health provider. “We have a responsibility to provide health care to the community,” he explains, “and while we do that on a daily basis, there are definitely people who don’t have access to services for one reason or another.” Often those reasons are financial. Sometimes they’re to do with location, age or circumstance. “In any case,” says Dr Baker, “I felt a responsibility to try to offer dental care to those people, as well as our regular patients.”

This impulse to extend services to those who have slipped through the dental care gap is not new to Dr Baker. During his university days, he helped to establish a student-run dental clinic in the Indigenous community of Cherbourg, South-West Queensland. “A girl in the previous year at Griffith University had piloted a program and, when she graduated, we took over and established the clinic,” he recalls. “There was myself and another student in the year above me. We offered the opportunity to work in the clinic to fifth-year students and we made four trips out to Cherbourg each year.”

The team’s work was overseen by a volunteer supervising dentist and, during their very first clinic, they saw roughly 120 patients and performed 350 separate procedures. “That experience was very personally rewarding,” he remembers. “There was a lot of experience gained by all the students who went out there and it gave us an opportunity to give something of value to the community.” That clinic is still operating out of Griffith University today, and is being run by Dr Baker’s youngest brother, Michael, who is in his final year of dentistry.

Indeed, the Bakers are a family of dedicated health care professionals. Two of the four boys have studied dentistry and the third is a medical doctor. “I guess I became interested in health because of my mother,” Dr Baker admits, and perhaps that’s also where he picked up a little of his philosophy of giving back. “Mum was a health worker and, when she was younger, she worked up in the Indigenous communities in the Gulf [of Carpentaria, between Queensland and Northern Territory]. She was with Queensland Health.”

“We have a responsibility to provide health care to the community, and while we do that on a daily basis, there are definitely people who don’t have access.”—Dr David Baker, Toowoomba Dental

Dr Baker was also a health worker, for a time, after initially studying nursing. Eventually, though, he felt drawn towards further study, deciding that he “wanted to do something clinical again,” and finally settled on dentistry. He hasn’t, for a moment, regretted it. “I enjoy the diversity,” he says. “You see different cases every day—even throughout the day, your cases can be very different. I also like the problem-solving aspect of dentistry. I’m a very results-driven person, so being able to solve people’s problems is rewarding. I really enjoy what I do. I don’t think there’ll be any more career path changes for me. This is it.”

Which is fortunate because Dr Baker’s brother, Michael, is set to join him in the practice in January next year. “I like the idea of a family business,” he says, “and I definitely want to stay here in Toowoomba.” He grew up in Brisbane and studied on the Gold Coast but, after graduation, he and his wife, Danyell, who works as Toowoomba Dental’s practice manager, were “looking for a tree change,” he says, and Toowoomba seemed the obvious choice.

“We were hoping to go somewhere a little bit quieter than Brisbane but not too far from our family and friends. I worked for another practice here when we first arrived and we established our own practice this year. I really like the fact that it’s not as busy as Brisbane, and it’s friendly.  You see patients at the shops and things like that here, but not to the extent that you would in a smaller town. We enjoy life here.”

When he has free time, David likes to potter around the garden, or pack up the tent and head for the bush for a weekend of camping. He’s also an enthusiastic and experimental cook. “I like making different things, like salami and cheese,” he explains. “This year I am trying my hand at making prosciutto. One of my best mates is Italian and her mother taught me to make salami.”

Over steaming bowls of pasta, the Toowoomba Dentistry team has already been making plans for the next pro-bono clinic. “Although really,” David admits, “there’s not a whole lot of planning involved.” He would recommend days like these to other dentists because, he says, “they’re so rewarding and simple to arrange. Toowoomba Youth Service was a great organisation to work with,” he adds. “They were enthusiastic and organised, so all we had to do was choose a day, block the book for that day and see the patients.”

There was also the need to be a little bit flexible. David points out that, “you don’t know ahead of time what sort of cases you’re going to have coming through the door. One patient might need nothing but a clean and another might need multiple extractions and fillings. So you have to run it as an emergency clinic and treat the most emergent problem. We also allowed a fair bit of time per person—that ‘just-in-case’ factor. It’s a full-on, flat-out day. You’re trying to do as much as you can in the time you have, so it can be a bit crazy, but it’s good.”

Dr Baker is a true believer in the potential for private dentistry to take some of the pressure off the public sector in other ways too. Volunteer organisations—like the Cherbourg and other university-run clinics, the Filling the Gap project, which works in co-operation with Aboriginal-run health services, and the Australian Society of Orthodontists’ Give a Smile project—are the kind of places where dentists, orthodontists, dental nurses, hygienists and dental students can all make an immense difference to people’s lives.

“The federal government’s Dental Benefits Scheme was also a great initiative,” he adds. “I think those sorts of schemes are important. The public sector is overloaded, so the funding of public services through the private sector is a useful strategy.” He’s also a vocal advocate for greater public education about the importance of good oral care.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “the thing that will make the biggest difference is preventing the need for treatment, and that means a good diet, as well as education. As dentists we’re educating people every day but whether people take action based on that is another thing. So it would be great to see some more community education, as well as the education we give. Caries is one of the most preventable diseases we have.”

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