Prioritising dental care for those who need it

There are better ways of doing dental triage.
There are better ways of doing dental triage.

University of Adelaide research into how dental care is prioritised is already having a positive impact on dental services in two Australian states, in some cases helping to reduce waiting times for patients and improve preventive care.

For her PhD research at the University of Adelaide, Dr Kelly Jones investigated new screening systems to help triage dental services.

She says most Australian public dental services provide care on a chronological, first come first served basis, and the way appointments are made can also differ greatly within states and across services.

“This can lead to difficulties for patients who require urgent, same-day emergency care, and it often means they’re getting patched up and sent on their way, only to fall into a pattern of emergency care,” says Dr Jones, who is now a Research Fellow with the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health at the University of Adelaide’s School of Dentistry.

“Long waiting lists and times for general dental care and an increasing reliance on emergency appointments show that many public dental services have been struggling to meet the needs of the community.”

In South Australia and New South Wales, Dr Jones assessed screening processes to determine relative need.  These included factors such as social disadvantage, disability, and a patient’s other medical conditions, as well as their dental health status, among others.

The result was such a success, both states’ dental services put some of Dr Jones’s findings into practice even before her research had ended.

Dr Jones has since completed an evaluation of the New South Wales triage system, which has been published this month in the journal BMC Health Services Research.

“In New South Wales, there has been a clear link between social disadvantage and higher need of dental care, which validates the changes that have occurred in that state.

“South Australia has experienced a drop in waiting lists – in some cases from years of waiting for general care to months.  There has also been increase in the level of preventive dental care, which is a great result for the services and for the community because it puts the focus on prevention,” Dr Jones says.

“In the health sector more broadly, there has been increasing use of screening systems to assess the needs of patients and to help plan their care, but these are not so common in public dental services.  One model won’t fit all circumstances and the implementation of such a system should always be based on good evidence, but it makes sense to find ways of improving the triage of services for the benefit of patients and for healthcare providers,” she says.

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