Shane Reti: Increased wait times for ED, surgery and now add dental to the list

Waiting times for dental surgery in Northland, and across the country, are growing, National’s Health Spokesman Shane Reti says

OPINION

We have recently heard specialist doctors talk about their crisis with not enough specialists along with GPs who also have a workforce crisis. ED departments are also in crisis with increasing wait times as long as 32 hours and to all of this we can now can add the dental crisis.

At the start of the year Dental Tribune International, an international website for dental news, reported “New Zealand’s oral health crisis rages on”. I asked Andrew Little this month how many children are overdue for dental check-ups in each DHB.

The reply in the table below suggests that on this measure we do have a dental crisis.

Every year since the current Labour government took over the reins the dental figures for overdue dental check-ups for children has got worse. Even before the 2017 hand over the figures weren’t great with 15 per cent of children overdue for their dental check-ups but in the past five years this has tripled to 45 per cent nationally.

Covid cannot be wheeled out as the perennial excuse for the dental delays because even though it has had a significant influence the figures were deteriorating before Covid.

What is needed however is a detailed exploration of where the hurdles are occurring and why.

Some DHBs such as Whanganui seem to be doing particularly well and we need to understand what their magic is and celebrate it and replicate it. For the upper north island DHBs however, Northland, Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato the overdue dental check-up statistics for children are appalling.

For Counties Manukau nearly two thirds of children are overdue and there is a reasonable chance these are the most vulnerable families.

There has been some recent funding for emergency dental grants and fluoride is being mandated from Wellington but the whole dental pathway needs to be examined. For example, there are simply not enough dentists and dental technicians and remuneration comparisons with Australia are challenging.

Dental education at an early age remains an important factor. In campaign 2020 we proposed investment in supervised teeth brushing and fluoride varnishes modelled on the successful ChildSmile dental programme in Scotland.

These are sobering figures for our children. Cure Kids reported recently on the increasing number of children being hospitalised with serious dental decay. Could there be a day when every New Zealand child is overdue their dental check-up, I hope not. I worry that the voice of children and their dental needs are overwhelmed by louder adult voices waiting in ED and waiting on specialist waiting lists.

The health reforms have a starting figure of $486M. Repurposing some of that funding and its associated bureaucracy would make inroads on improving our dental services to children.

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