Welcome to country

With the DRISS program moving into its final phase, the scheme is being branded a success. But those involved agree making the move into rural and remote communities is not for everyone. By John Burfitt

As the final stage of the DRISS program reaches its halfway point, it seems there are many dentists happy with what the scheme has already achieved in its time.

DRISS—the Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme—was launched in 2013 to encourage dentists to relocate into rural and remote Australian communities that lacked dental services. The support was in the form of relocation incentives (up to $120,000) and infrastructure grants (up to $250,000).

With the last round of grants having been approved and the scheme due to come to an end in 2019, the analysis has already begun on if, where and how the program achieved its desired outcomes.

According to Ian Mayer, CEO of Rural Health Workforce Australia, the body that administers the DRISS program, the reach of the scheme has been “outstanding”.

“The DRISS program has been very successful, and has assisted in excess of 180 dentists to relocate to regional, rural and remote communities throughout Australia,” Mr Mayer says. “As a result, more than 160,000 procedures have been provided by dentists on the program. “Six funding rounds have been successfully conducted since the commencement of the program. The future of rural dental workforce support is currently being considered by the Federal Government.”

One dentist who has recently been involved with the DRISS program is Dr Anand Makwana, of the Warragul Dental Care clinic, just over 100km east of Melbourne. Dr Makwana moved from Melbourne to the country town 18 months ago with his partner Belinda Brauman to take over the business of an existing clinic, and to commence a new country lifestyle.

“The fact that we wanted to move out of the city, and the fact that we were eligible for a DRISS grant, really helped us get on our feet,” he says. “I wanted to bring in new equipment so the patients could benefit from those services. The grant helped with the cost of relocation and with the new technology that the clinic needed to make the patient experience more comfortable.”

“The benefits of being here are so much greater and make up for anything I fear I might be missing out on back in the city. You get such a sense of belonging when you work in a small community, and you can see a definite change. About 40 per cent of the book is people returning for follow-up care.”—Dr Jijesh Nhalila Valappil, Nhulunbuy, Gove Peninsula, NT

Dr Makwana, who has also just bought his first property to call home in the area, says the move to the rural community has been completely successful, in terms of creating a business and as a lifestyle choice with Belinda. He says they made a clear decision that this was where they wanted to be—and for many more reasons beyond just having their own practice.

“This is all about really wanting to be here and be a part of this community in the long term,” he says. “This practice had been here for 35 years with that dentist, and we thought we could take it over for the next 35 years and make it grow with us.”

That commitment to settling in the area has paid off in business terms, he says.

“If you’re going to move to a rural community, then decide to be an active member of that community, so the local people get to know you. Patients are very savvy and if they think you don’t want to be there, they will pick up on that.

“You can tell that when they ask, ‘Which dentist will I see here next time?’ When you reassure them it will still be you, that’s when you begin to build a solid patient relationship with them to continue into the future.”

It’s that same attitude Dr Jijesh Nhalila Valappil adopted when in 2013 he first set up a practice in Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, a 17-hour drive east of Darwin. Dr Nhalila Valappil opened the clinic as part of the DRISS program, and soon after featured on the cover of Bite when he was dubbed ‘Australia’s Most Remote Dentist’.

At the time, the tiny town had not had a regular dental service for five years. Four years on, Dr Valappil reports his appointment books have been full ever since, and he’s still happily part of the Nhulunbuy community.

“The benefits of being here are so much greater and make up for anything I fear I might be missing out on back in the city,” he says. “You get such a sense of belonging when you work in a small community, and you can see a definite change. About 40 per cent of the book is people returning for follow-up care.”

“If you’re going to move to a rural community, then decide to be an active member of that community, so the local people get to know you. Patients are very savvy and if they think you don’t want to be there, they will pick up on that.”—Dr Anand Makwana, Warragul Dental Care Clinic, VIC

Since the end of the mining boom in recent times, the population of Nhulunbuy has decreased, and as a result, so too has the demand for dental care. These days, Dr Valappil divides his time between the Gold Coast, where his young family is based and where he also works at the Pines Dental Clinic, and three days every fortnight at the Nhulunbuy practice.

“I like working this way for the variety and the experience it provides, and have signed on for two more years,” he says. “I’ve had some of the best times of my career here, and been so welcomed into this community.”

According to practitioner surveys conducted by RHWA among the DRISS dentists, 90 per cent stated they were satisfied or very satisfied with their rural dentist experience.

Most telling, 83 per cent reported at the end of their retention period they planned to stay at least five more years at their rural dental practice.

“The lifestyle is not for everyone, and consideration needs to be given to many lifestyle, professional, family and other matters before committing to a multi-year retention period,” RHWA’s Ian Mayer says. “The vast majority who have relocated tell us they greatly enjoy the experience.”

For all his success of going rural, Dr Makwana agrees that making such a move is not for everyone.

“If you need the ever-changing pace of the city, and the constant flow of new patients, then moving into a rural town may not be a good fit,” he says.

“I was at a point where I didn’t want to be in the city anymore. I wanted space and to be in a small community where you could make connections with the local people and not be so anonymous. This was a conscious decision for us, and has paid off in so many ways.”

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