AUT’s health faculty dean Professor Max Abbott says it is an outrage that affordable alternative models of care have been blocked when so many adults cannot afford dental care.

Abbott made the comment in a statement commending the University of Otago’s plans to build a dental teaching facility in South Auckland that would significantly increase local access to oral healthcare.

He pointed out that the New Zealand Health Survey showed only a third of adults in the most deprived areas consulted a health professional during the previous 12 months compared to most adults in the least deprived areas.

AUT offers an oral health therapy degree at its North Shore campus that trains therapists that can deliver dental therapy services to children up to the age of 18 and oral hygiene services to adults. There is currently a debate over oral health and dental therapists wanting to review the age restriction for dental therapy services.

Abbott added to the debate by saying the current delivery model contributed to “unacceptable socioeconomic and ethnic health disparities” and the dental therapist scope should be widened.

“It is an outrage that we have tolerated this situation for decades and dental bodies have blocked alternatives that would make affordable preventative and curative dental care available to those most in need,” said Abbott.

The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) response to the age restriction debate has been to call for therapists to focus first on improving  children’s poor dental health. Dental Association president Bill O’Connor recently called on the Government to review the therapist-led ‘school’ oral health service which he said was “underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed” and was failing New Zealand’s children.

Abbott in his statement this week said that “professional bodies, especially registration boards, had a statutory obligation to ensure high standards of practice and protect the public”. “They are not charged with maximising the income of their members and rationing care to those who can afford to pay for it.”

“Rather than relying on dentists, we would extend the dental therapist scope and employ therapists in multidisciplinary primary care settings. Dentists and specialists could provide consultation and focus on more complex procedures. This would make basic preventative and treatment services universally available.”

Professor Abbott says it is an irony that previous Minister of Health, Hon Annette King, was one of the small number of therapists, then called dental nurses, who had an adult scope of practice. He says dental care has gone backwards in this respect.

“Otago University’s new facility will help South Auckland communities, just as AUT’s oral health teaching clinic does on the North Shore. However, these facilities only very partially address the massive unmet dental health needs throughout the country.”

Professor Abbot said he was looking forward to working with Otago University colleagues to research population oral health status and needs and advocate for the provision of oral care as part of comprehensive healthcare in New Zealand.

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