The National Dental Foundation has been offering free dental care to the needy since 2004. Last year its co-founder, Dr David Digges, was named NSW Volunteer of the Year. By Kerryn Ramsey
Back in 2005, Dr David Digges began volunteering for two weeks every year, providing emergency dental care to people in mountainous parts of Timor-Leste where there are no qualified dentists outside the capital. The owner of Sydney’s Bellevue Hill Dental remembers flying home from his first visit to Timor, asking himself what dental services were available to those in need in Australia. When he started talking to his staff and people working at organisations who deal with the homeless, or victims of domestic abuse, he soon realised many people could not access dental care.
Dr Digges started opening his surgery for a day or two each year to provide free care. Before long, he was contacted by Melbourne philanthropist and dental industry leader, Mervin Saultry, who joined forces with Dr Digges to form the National Dental Foundation (NDF). It now includes 200 dentists across Australia who volunteer their time. For 2015-16, the NDF organised 260 Dental Rescue Days across Australia that provided over $600,000 worth of treatment.
The NSW peak volunteering body, The Centre for Volunteering, recognised the widespread positive impact of the NDF by crowning Dr David Digges 2016 NSW Volunteer of the Year.
As Dr Digges said in his acceptance speech: “This award is shared with my many colleagues, for without their generosity the NDF could not provide dental care to those most in need.”
The NDF brings together dentists, their practices and their staff with the most needy people in society. An involved practice usually spends one or two days a year offering free treatment for worthwhile cases. A recent innovation sees a dental practice adopting a patient in order to complete a dental plan.
This has been trialled in NSW and VIC with very positive results. The patient must fit a profile that shows they are willing and able to look after their teeth once treatment is complete. This concept fits in with the NDF philosophy of not disrupting practices too much yet provides comprehensive dental care that can’t be achieved during a single free day per year.
“We’ve had some patients referred to us by an organisation that supports women on parole once they have been released from prison,” says Dr Digges. “A couple of dental laboratories have also jumped on board and donated their services. Race Dental in NSW and the Southern Cross Dental laboratories have agreed to provide more complex solutions to people in need. It might be a partial denture for a woman disfigured by domestic violence or some crowns to repair the teeth of a former meth or ice addict.”
While the NDF originated and refined its concepts and treatments in NSW, it soon became apparent there was a huge need for such a program nationwide. Plans were made to expand the program, and dentists were putting up their hand to take part. The fact that Dr Digges wasn’t shy about asking for help really moved things along. “I thought I might as well just ask people as they can only say no,” he recalls. “I discovered that if you ask nicely, you’ll probably get the help you need. And if you tell them they don’t have to reach for the cheque book, that helps seal the deal.”
“I thought I might as well just ask people as they can only say no. I discovered that if you ask nicely, you’ll probably get the help you need. And if you tell them they don’t have to reach for the cheque book, that helps seal the deal.”—Dr David Digges, co-founder, National Dental Foundation
The NDF was rolled out in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. Board members were appointed for each state. With Dr Digges on hand to give advice, the team started setting up Dental Rescue Days.
In 2012, the NDF approached the Federal Government for funding. Though a frugal organisation, the NDF needed money for state coordinators and day-to-day expenses. The Federal Government agreed to three years’ funding while NDF’s co-founder, Mervin Saultry, doubled his efforts to raise funds.
The rug pulled
At the end of the three-year period in 2015, the government withdrew funding from the NDF. “Frankly, it’s very hard to explain,” says Dr Digges. “They just withdrew the funding without explanation. We felt a bit beaten up, to be honest. We had coordinators in place around Australia, teams were starting to hum from Perth to Sydney, hundreds of patients were being treated and the Federal Government decided to pull the plug. I wrote them a fairly direct letter pointing out that for every one dollar the government put in, we supplied $10 worth of donated dental care.”
While this setback could have spelled disaster for the NDF, Dr Digges decided to approach one of the newest Australian dental corporations, Pacific Smiles. “I am friends from university days with the founder, Dr Alex Abrahams,” he says. “I thought I would contact him to see if the NDF was something they would like to support. Sure enough, helping Australians in need was a cause they were happy to get behind.”
That corporate sponsorship took place two years ago and saved the NDF from disaster. Pacific Smiles is funding the coordinators around Australia while a number of its practices have volunteered to take part in Dental Rescue Days.
“They are a wonderful supporter,” says Dr Digges. “In dentistry, there are hospital and university dentists, private practitioners like myself, and the corporates. We just want to combine everyone’s efforts and Pacific Smiles has really stepped up.”
As the NDF continues to extend its reach, more and more practices are volunteering to take part. Interestingly, the majority of the support is coming from practices in well-off areas with a higher socio-economic status.
“When I contact dentists in well- established practices doing high-quality work in a good environment, they invariably agree to help,” says Dr Digges. “It’s a little bit counterintuitive but when you think about it, they probably see how fortunate they are and simply want to give back. Our clients, who have been treated in the public hospital system at best, are often gobsmacked by the hot towels, filtered water and plush surroundings. One told me that he felt like he was in a hotel.”
All in the family
The NDF is expanding across the nation, and is taking up more of Dr Digges’ time than ever before. At the same time, he continues to run his practice in Bellevue Hill [in Sydney’s eastern suburbs] while doing his best to balance work, family and foundation commitments. “It’s never a burden but it’s certainly a juggling act,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have such a supportive family.”
“When I contact dentists in well-established practices doing high-quality work in a good environment, they invariably agree to help. When you think about it, they probably see how fortunate they are and simply want to give back.”—Dr David Digges, co-founder, National Dental Foundation
Bellevue Hill Dental was started by Dr Bryan Digges in 1950, who was joined by his son David in 1984 soon after graduation. The family line continues today with a nephew of Dr Digges, Dr James Digges, starting at the practice in 2013 after graduating in 2010 from the University of Sydney. Naturally, James is as passionate about the NDF as his uncle and has volunteered his time and skill. “James is a very talented young dentist, and contributes greatly to the growth of Bellevue Hill Dental,” says Dr Digges. “It’s great to have him on board in the practice and as part of the NDF. I’m very fortunate in that respect.”
The NDF is an extremely cost-conscious organisation and run on a shoestring budget. In order to eliminate crippling infrastructure costs, they don’t even have offices. Instead, their coordinators are housed in office space within the Australian Dental Foundation (ADF). Right now, the NDF is looking at combining resources with the ADF as a way of future-proofing the organisation.
While it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the organising, coordinating and constant struggles to raise funds, Dr Digges is thrilled when he experiences, first-hand, the positive impact volunteer dentistry can have on a person’s life. Recently he treated a woman who was a victim of domestic violence. Interlaced with that was drug addiction problems and an AVO. She had also voluntarily given up her child while she tried to sort herself out.
“It was obvious to me that she was a decent person who realised her life had gone off the rails,” says Dr Digges. “She had placed herself in drug rehab where they recognised her serious dental problems and referred her to me through the NDF. She was only about 30 years of age but a number of her teeth were just black stumps. As she got better and became healthier, her teeth were a source of great embarrassment and misery.
“She needed eight crowns. When I fitted the temporaries, the improvement was dramatic and there were plenty of tears. Then, when she came back for the actual crowns, we could all see a positive change. Her hair was done, she was wearing make-up, she had a new pair of jeans—this was a person suddenly taking a bit of pride in her appearance. After the crowns were fitted, my nurse commented on how nice she looked and the patient smiled freely, probably for the first time in years. At the same time, there were tears of joy running down her face.
“This woman had been transformed. Her confidence was returning, her self-esteem was on the rise and as she was very nearly recovered, there was a real possibility of getting her child back.
“Seeing this woman’s change was the kind of reward that is an absolute pleasure for me and my staff. That’s what the NDF is all about.”