Auckland dental waiting list leaves almost 2000 children overdue for surgery

There are still nearly 2000 children waiting for dental surgery in Auckland, with a prediction it will get worse because routine check ups are so delayed.

File photo.
Photo: MICROGEN IMAGES/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Auckland health authorities were given hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix the surgical waiting list in 2020 but have not been able to get on top of it.

The children, many of them in daily pain, needed work done under general anaesthetic because it was either complex or because they would find it difficult to be awake for a dental procedure – like very young children.

The city’s specialist dental service said it expected the problem to get worse, saying it could not keep up with new referrals.

It carried out 1884 dental surgeries on children in the year to July 2022, but had 3307 referrals.

There were currently 1825 children waiting.

New Zealand Dental Association spokesperson Dr Katie Ayers said the service had done a good job trying to clear the waiting list, upping the pace of its surgeries.

But it was “chasing its tail”, she said.

The Dental Association's Dr Katie Ayers is calling on the government to honour its pre-election promises about dental care.

New Zealand Dental Association spokesperson Dr Katie Ayers. File photo
Photo: Supplied/ NZ Dental Association

There were about 186,000 Auckland children, intermediate age and younger, overdue for a routine dental check, two thirds of all those enrolled.

There was a direct correlation between that delay and the waiting list for surgical work, Dr Ayers said.

“If you see a child with a very small problem, you might be able to fix it very simply,” she said.

“Whereas, if the problem just gets bigger and bigger and bigger due to the delay in accessing treatment then it is more likely that the child will need to go to sleep, for example to have teeth out that might previously have been able to be saved.”

In November 2020, the Auckland Regional Hospital Specialist Dentistry Service, then run by the Auckland district health board for the whole region, was given $650,000 by the Ministry of Health to clear a waiting list of 2000 children within six months.

But it has never been able to significantly reduce the size of the list.

Te Whatu Ora Auckland director of surgical services Duncan Bliss said the service had increased the amount of hospital-based dental work it was doing, even with Covid-19 disruptions.

But it did expect referrals to keep increasing, he said.

It was running a mobile surgical bus twice a year to boost capacity, using private hospital theatres and running weekend surgeries, he said.

Over the next six weeks it was trialling an evening clinic.

Ayers said the service was limited by theatre space, nursing and other staff shortages, just like general surgery.

Children who needed serious work were sometimes unable to sleep or eat properly because of the pain and that impacted on the whole family, she said.

When her clinic checked in with families after surgery, they often said it had been life changing.

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