A University of Otago dental student who has organised a free community dental clinic for low socio-economic patients has been amazed at the life-changing effect the service has had on the patients.
“It’s been amazing. There have been tears of ‘thanks’, hugs and hand-written cards,” fourth-year dental student Jamie Marra explains.
“We have had patients who have been trying to find jobs, but who were struggling going to interviews with blackened tooth stumps – and they are now walking out from our clinic with smiles.”
Together with Gore dentist, Dr Haneen Alaynan, Mrs Marra has helped organise and run a free clinic in the University’s new Clinical Services Building every Sunday over the past six weeks. Mrs Marra says she was inspired by senior Faculty of Dentistry staff, Professor Murray Thomson, Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent and Dr Abdullah Barazanchi, to develop her passion to enable better access to oral health care for all New Zealanders.
One of the patients, Dunedin man Brendon Hurring says he cannot thank the students and staff at the Faculty of Dentistry enough for the dental care he has received.
Having faced a number of health issues together with periods of unemployment, Mr Hurring had not seen a dentist for 30 years and knew his teeth were not in great shape. Over the six-week period he has had five extractions, four fillings, three root canals and scaling.
“It’s changed my life,” Mr Hurring says. Previously, I wouldn’t smile and I’m much more confident now.”
Associate Professor Broadbent estimates over the six weeks the patients received dental care which might cost nearly $70,000 in private practice. And, while the clinic was successful it has highlighted the need for better funded community dental care in New Zealand, he says.
Most of the 60 patients cared for in the clinics had a number of dental problems and had not visited a dentist for years because of the cost.
“The fact that so many people need this kind of help demonstrates the problems with accessing dental care in New Zealand,” Associate Professor Broadbent says.
“Charitable volunteering demonstrates the high degree of social accountability among our dental students. However, charity is not a sustainable way to do public health. There is no guarantee the project will run again or be scaled-up in future.”
Both Mrs Marra and Dr Alayan led fundraising for the free clinic by establishing a running club called ‘Run with Heart’ where members raised about $6000 by participating in the Dunedin Marathon. The group also received a US$10,000 grant from The Wrigley Company Foundation and the New Zealand Dental Association Community Service Grants programme. Support from the Faculty of Dentistry’s Clinical Director, Dr Don Schwass, and Acting Dean, Professor Karl Lyons, in being able to use the Clinical Services Building was also vital.
This has enabled the group to run clinics on a Sunday from 10am to 5pm over the past six weeks. Most of the care was provided by fully qualified dentists however, in a few cases final-year students also participated. A large volunteer effort was required to run each clinic with 35 dentists together with dental students and administration staff volunteering with help from sterilising assistants.
The clinics have just finished and final statistics are being finalised, but Mrs Marra estimates more than 60 patients were referred from Servants Health Centre in Dunedin and about 50 were treated.
“All patients were carefully and thoroughly assessed with radiographic and clinical exams. Patients’ teeth were repaired whenever possible and unsalvageable teeth were removed,” Mrs Marra explains.
“They left not just with smiles, but with the feeling that they are included in the oral healthcare system. We are going to keep these patients in the system by recalling them so they don’t fall back through the cracks.”
Mrs Marra hopes to continue running the project next year and possibly to expand the service to offer dentures to help more patients.
While this is not a routine clinic for the Faculty of Dentistry, it has provided low-cost dental care for the community of Otago and Southland for a number of years. The faculty is contracted to provide publicly-funded dental services for the Southern District Health Board and some of these contracts are targeted to disadvantaged and low income groups.