Dental Hygienists’ Association calls for increased support for dental schools

DHAA president Hellen Checker
DHAA president Hellen Checker

The Dental Hygienists’ Association of Australia (DHAA) Inc. is calling on state governments, professional associations and private dental practices to increase their support for dental schools at a time when many are facing financial pressures, resulting in decisions to cut places for oral health programs.

“Oral health therapists and dental hygienists are the key primary preventive dental professionals,” said DHAA Inc.’s National President, Hellen Checker. “Their expertise extends beyond the clinic and into the community through outreach services to people living in remote areas or in institutional settings. It is saddening to see these professionals effectively devalued by the decision to train fewer of them.”

Cuts to student numbers are often justified on the ground of a workforce glut. However, the recent Dental Hygienists’ Association National Symposium provided a different perspective. As Winthrop Professor Marc Tennant of The University of Western Australia noted, there is a mal-distribution of dental clinics across Australia, with most concentrated in affluent suburbs, slanted away from disease burden. Many areas are therefore grossly under-serviced; over a third of the population, including those most in need, has no local dental practice.

Australia must find new ways to improve oral health. These include training students in regional areas to encourage retention in the locale after graduation – one purpose of the new dental schools at Charles Sturt University, La Trobe University and James Cook University. More use needs to be made of telecommunications to enable remote dental services to be linked to a ‘hub’ of expertise.

Similarly, removing the restrictive scope of practice that currently applies to dental hygienists and oral health therapists would enable outreach services to be developed in rural and remote areas or in under-serviced urban settings.

Pressures on dental schools include insufficient funding and increased expenses as a result of some governments and private practices billing for the cost of student clinic placements. “DHAA Inc. affirms its support for Australia’s dental schools as they struggle against these pressures,” continued Hellen Checker. “We urge all professional associations to uphold our rural and metropolitan dental schools and we call on government clinics and private practices to end the disreputable practice of charging for student placements. Yet again, the bureaucrats have forgotten that the head is part of the body. Efforts to improve health services will be undermined by these repeated decisions to sideline oral health.”

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