Funding oral health research in Australia

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funding oral health research in Australia
Professor Sašo Ivanovski, Dean of the School of Dentistry at The University of Queensland Photography: Richard Whitfield

Oral health research in Australia is severely underfunded. That has major consequences for patient treatment outcomes and the dental profession as a whole. By Shane Conroy

There is a major lack of funding for dental research in Australia. That’s according to a groundbreaking study on oral health research funding co-authored by the deans of three of the largest dental schools in Australia. 

The study, published in the Australian Dental Journal, is based on research conducted in partnership with the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. 

It found that oral health disorders receive less government funding than all other major disease categories, and disproportionately low research funding based on disease burden. Between 2017 and 2021, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) allocated only 0.23 per cent of its total funding budget to oral health research. 

While cancer ($860 million), infectious diseases ($794 million) and cardiovascular disease ($539 million) research understandably dominated NHMRC funding between 2017 and 2021, research for oral disorders ($15 million) was out-funded by research for skin disorders ($53 million) and hearing and vision disorders ($110 million). 

This is despite oral health problems accounting for 4.4 per cent of Australia’s non-fatal disease burden. The study also points out that dental disorders represent 25 per cent of Australia’s approximately 70,000 preventable hospitalisations per year, and dental caries is the fifth highest disease burden among children aged five to 14. 

“We were surprised by how acute the problem is,” says study co-author and dean of the School of Dentistry at The University of Queensland, Professor Sašo Ivanovski. “For something that’s so prevalent in the community, it’s astounding how poorly funded oral health research is.”

Why the shortfall

The reasons for this funding disparity are complex, but Professor Ivanovski says two fundamental factors may play a predominant role.

One of the hallmarks of a profession is that it is based on a body of knowledge. Unless we can continue to contribute to that body of knowledge with sufficient oral health research, the profession will not prosper.

Professor Sašo Ivanovski, dean, UQ School of Dentistry

“Dentistry seems to sit outside the broader health system. It isn’t part of Medicare, so I think the government doesn’t really see it as part of its remit,” he explains. “At the same time, we’re competing for research funding with a lot of other life-threatening diseases, as well as very strong lobby groups that advocate for narrow, targeted health issues.” 

He adds that as oral health covers such a broad spectrum of disorders, it’s difficult to galvanise support behind a single aspect of oral health.

Disproportionate funding for oral health research also seems to be a particularly Australian problem. In the US, for example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) allocated 1.1 per cent of its total research funding to oral health. In an Australian context, this would be equivalent to increasing our actual oral health funding from $15 million to around $72 million.

Professor Ivanovski puts this disparity between funding levels for oral health research in Australia versus the US down to the absence of a dedicated oral health research funding body in Australia. 

“In the US, the NIH has a dedicated funding envelope for dental research that’s delivered through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research,” he explains. “That means funding for oral health research in the US is embedded into their system. We don’t have that here.” 

The consequences of inaction

Professor Ivanovski says insufficient funding for oral health research in Australia is already being felt by patients, as well as by the dental profession at large. 

“At a patient level, our rates of caries and periodontal disease haven’t improved in decades, and the lack of research funding is making it more difficult to engage community interest in participating in their own oral health. Without the exposure that research brings, we’re not getting meaningful outcomes.

“The research funding gap is also impacting the dental profession at a higher level,” he adds. “Dentistry prides itself on being a profession, but one of the hallmarks of a profession is that it is based on a body of knowledge. Unless we can continue to contribute to that body of knowledge with sufficient oral health research, the profession will not prosper.”

Dentistry seems to sit outside the broader health system. It isn’t part of Medicare, so I think the government doesn’t really see it as part of its remit.

Professor Sašo Ivanovski, dean, UQ School of Dentistry

And without appropriate research funding, the well of dental innovation in Australia could soon run dry. 

“Private industry certainly has a big role to play in funding innovation,” Professor Ivanovski explains. “They are very effective in picking up a proof of concept and developing it into a commercial product. But it’s very rare for industry to do the basic science and the early proof of concept work.”

Rather, oral health researchers typically make the initial leaps. And the lack of oral health research funding could also be severely draining our talent pool. 

“As we fall behind in research funding, there is less opportunity to develop our researchers, so our ability to do research is being impacted,” Professor Ivanovski warns. “And when we don’t have those up-and-comers who are going to be competitive in seeking research funding, it becomes even harder to secure. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Advocating for change

Breaking that cycle is going to require a coordinated effort from across the dental profession—and a lot of that power could be in the hands of practising dentists. 

“Funding bodies are increasingly looking for community engagement and participation in the research process,” Professor Ivanovski concludes. “So galvanising our many practitioners to engage with their communities on the funding issue is really important.”

But that’s going to require support from professional associations.

“Professional associations, such as the ADA and specialist societies, could provide dentists with guidance, marketing materials and educational tools in a coordinated effort to help them encourage their communities to advocate for more research funding—because if we get the community’s interest, we’ll get the government’s interest.”  

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