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NSW dentist Dr Mohit Tolani is devoting his career to bridge the gap between private and public sector dentistry and provide affordable dental care for those who need it. By Stuart Turner
Dr Mohit Tolani had known since his undergraduate days that he wanted to make a big impact in dentistry. The day he had to extract 20 rotting teeth from a teenager’s mouth while working as a dental health officer in regional Victoria, however, cemented that goal.
“Talking to the girl’s parents, it was clear they had virtually no oral health literacy,” says Dr Tolani. “They knew about the importance of good nutrition, but not about caring for teeth. That was hugely alarming. Realising how removing several teeth from a child would impact them underlined for me the existing disparities around oral health, especially in rural areas. It made me want to make a difference.”
For most of the last decade, Dr Tolani has been striving to help improve dental health awareness and accessibility to affordable oral health, especially among vulnerable patients. His selfless work has earned him several accolades, including being recently named in the 2023 list of the world’s top 100 doctors by the peer-to-peer Global Summits Institute organisation.
“Whoever nominated me, I’m very grateful,” says Dr Tolani. “Sharing a platform with global healthcare leaders was not only humbling and a great honour; it’s also inspired me to do more.”
Dr Tolani’s passion for bridging the gap between the public and private sectors was ignited while studying for his dentistry degree at Queensland’s Griffith University. While studying, he volunteered on important community projects, including mentoring Indigenous youngsters. It was during these stints he saw the worrying lack of dental health education and literacy among minority groups in particular.
“Dentistry always seemed an ‘A-Z fit’ of what I wanted from a career,” says Dr Tolani. “Whether it was mapping treatment plans, working with my hands or being part of the patient journey, it seemed perfect for me.
“These volunteer projects helped me understand how so many health problems are linked to the mouth. It also showed me how making changes at the grassroots can have a significant impact.”
After completing his studies, Dr Tolani moved to regional Victoria to work as a dentist at the Goulburn Valley Health public hospital. While there he launched the Shepp Health project, partnering with healthcare professionals to deliver oral and other healthcare information to local high school and TAFE students.
Alongside other dental professionals, Dr Tolani also provided a mobile dentistry service to treat patients in rural areas.
“As well as seeing regional patients who had rarely accessed the dentist, we saw a significant number of refugees who were experiencing oral health problems,” he says. “There were some patients who had never heard of a dentist and couldn’t say what was causing them pain.
“It could be daunting, but I just wanted to challenge myself and learn from the experience.”
Moving to a private practice in the NSW Illawarra region in 2018, Dr Tolani continued his crusade to break down the barriers around accessing dental treatment. This included hosting free ‘drop in’ sessions for locals to discuss oral health concerns and explore potential treatment pathways.
Other local initiatives have included promoting childhood oral awareness and promoting programs such as the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, while he has also regularly assisted with the Australian Dental Association NSW’s advocacy efforts.
“There’s still a significant proportion of our communities who just don’t like seeing dentists, especially in regional areas,” says Dr Tolani. “It’s been about finding ways to break down barriers and earn people’s trust.
“By being open with the community, it helps break down any ‘fear barriers’ many people have about dentists.”
His community work was honoured with a Pride of Australia award in 2018, the 2020 Wollongong Outstanding Achievement Award and the Griffith University ‘Outstanding Health Alumnus’ award in 2021.
Dr Tolani is currently combining practising with studying for a Masters in Dental Public Health (specialisation) at the University of Sydney, while preparing to undertake new community oral health initiatives aimed at helping vulnerable patients.
One project—providing dental treatment to Meals on Wheels recipients—is underway, while another, which will see Dr Tolani and other dental practitioners visit Sydney aged care homes with a mobile dental kit, is also planned.
Dr Tolani hopes other oral health practitioners will find their own ways to tackle oral health inequities.
“I think many dental professionals might be scared of trying their own community projects, for whatever reason,” he says. “I’ve always believed though that as dental professionals, we must take responsibility for improving the population’s oral health. We have the knowledge and skills, so why not use them in areas of genuine need?
“I also think if we can share success stories of community initiatives and how they can change patients’ lives, it might motivate others to start their own projects.”
Dr Tolani also hopes his experiences might encourage more collaboration between public and private sector dentists.
“I think we don’t often see private dentists working with public counterparts to deliver the best outcome for patients, for multiple reasons,” he says. “I don’t see the public and private settings as competing with each other. If a treatment course cannot be delivered through the public system, let’s explore other ways to get it done and reduce waiting times for patients.
“There are schemes available like the ADA NSW’s Filling the Gap program, which shows how collaboration can ensure better outcomes for patients. The situation must improve, but it doesn’t frustrate me. It inspires me to do more.”