Oral health therapists key to universal dental care

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A simple change in how public dental care is delivered could save millions in taxpayer funds and reduce waitlists that force disadvantaged Australians to wait years for treatment, according to new Deakin University research.

The study, published in Human Resources for Health, crunched the numbers on transitioning one of Australia’s largest public dental programs to a delivery model led by more oral health therapists instead of dentists.

It showed that if the Federal Government’s national scheme to increase dental care access for children was administered by Victoria’s current workforce ratio of two oral health therapists to every three dentists, it could save $67 million from the program’s annual expenditure.

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“Countries that want to embed dental services in universal health care must maximise the role of oral health therapists to improve efficiency,” lead author Tan Nguyen said.

“The potential cost-savings could be re-invested in other public dental initiatives such as school-based dental check programs, or resource allocation to eliminate adult dental waiting lists in the public sector, which can run up to three years or more.”

In Australia, oral conditions are the second most common cause of acute, potentially preventable hospitalisations, and currently nearly a third of children aged five to six have never visited a dental practitioner.

“It’s always been a big issue for governments to fund dental because they believe it is a high cost,” Nguyen said.

“Our work shows it doesn’t have to be as high as they think. There are more sustainable ways to deliver public dental services, and this economic analysis shows a better use of resources is possible.”

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