Tooth decay revealed as leading oral health issue

Nearly six million Australians are living with tooth decay or other oral health issues, according to Medibank data released earlier this week.

Findings from the Medibank Better Health Index—which surveys 1,000 Australians every week—show that 5,707,000 people are affected by at least one dental or oral health issue, with females making up 55 per cent of this total figure.

The Medibank data comes after a government report published in January revealed considerable median waiting times for public dental support, with the average wait for general dental care exceeding one year in multiple states.

The report also noted that while 36 per cent of Australians are eligible for public dental care, current funding for oral health services enables only 20 per cent of the eligible group to be treated.

“It’s clear from these findings that millions of Australians are living with dental and oral health concerns,” Medibank chief medical officer Dr Linda Swan said.

“We know that if left untreated, periodontal disease may contribute to a range of more serious chronic health conditions—from diabetes to heart disease—so it’s concerning to see that those requiring dental support may be waiting a year or longer to be treated, or not being able to be seen at all, under the public system.

“While in Australia we’re lucky to have a world class public health system, most dental care is not covered by Medicare,” Dr Awan continued.

“This means those with painful dental conditions who do not have health insurance may be forced to pay high out-of-pocket expenses to get in quickly and be seen privately. In contrast, people with health insurance extras cover will likely face little to no wait, and have the benefit of selecting their own specialist.”

Of the conditions surveyed, tooth decay was found to be the leading dental or oral health issue facing 14.7 per cent of Australians. And while the percentage of those affected by tooth decay was found to have declined overall since 2012-13, the data shows that in recent years, this has begun to once again increase, with an upswing from 13.9 per cent in 2014-15 to 14.7 per cent in 2016-17.

Interestingly, males were more likely to be affected by tooth decay than females—16.5 compared to 13 per cent—however, females were far more likely to struggle with sensitive teeth, with a whopping 18.9 per cent affected, compared to just 9.9 per cent of males.

“It’s concerning to see there’s been an upswing in the percentage affected by tooth decay in recent years, as this may reflect a trend towards poor oral hygiene or diets higher in sugar,” Dr Swan said.

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