While it’s likely that many in the region are grinning at the prospect of free dental care policies being enacted post-election, those in the oral health sector are gritting their teeth as they wonder how the promises would be fulfilled.
While the Green Party have pitched making dental care free for everyone using $1.4 billion raised by a wealth tax, Labour’s policy looks to fully fund dental care to those under 30, drip-fed in two stages over the next three years.
Dentist Kevin Wong, who owns a self-named practice in Masterton, said he notices cost is a frequent barrier for younger people.
“I think the cost of dental treatment is inhibiting some young people to come in and get treatment,” Wong said.
“Once they leave school, a lot of the young ones don’t bother getting their teeth looked at, they just leave it, and it gradually gets worse.”
If the basic treatment proposed by both policies – check-ups, fillings, x-rays, basic tooth extractions, and teeth cleaning – was free, Wong believes it would encourage more of the younger demographic to keep on top of their oral health.
However, he also pointed out that either scheme would be incredibly costly, as well as difficult to implement given a current shortage of dentists.
“It’s probably not so bad in the main areas, but in provincial New Zealand, it’s difficult to find anyone at the moment. There is a shortage.”
Wong said his practice is still searching for a replacement for a dentist who left in January.
“I have been advertising and advertising, and can’t get anyone to replace them,” Wong said.
“It’s the same in a lot of health professions, I think it’s a problem in most of the health sector.”
Wairarapa Emergency Department head Dr Norman Gray echoed this sentiment when he observed there would need to be a large investment in recruitment.
“The government’s announced they would like to do free dental work for everyone under 30, which is a good first step – but who’s actually going to do the work?” Gray asked.
“If we can’t recruit people, how can we do that policy?”
Noting the main reasons people avoid dentist visits – cost, availability and a fear of dentists – Gray said that at Wairarapa Hospital they see at least one example a day of a dental issue that has become compounded over time.
“We see cases of people who have delayed dental treatment, and it escalates almost every day. Some days there might be two or three people,” Gray said.
“Eventually, they may lose teeth when they didn’t need to … or what they would have had was a simple filling and it is now a dental abscess.”
While the sensible thing to do is to visit a dentist at an earlier stage, Gray said it ultimately comes down to money.
“All we can do is buy them time by giving them pain relief and antibiotics until they can go to a dentist.”
While funded care is a good start, Gray said the wider landscape of an understaffed healthcare system makes him wonder how the increase in dental treatment would be achieved.
Gray referred to Tuesday’s unprecedented nationwide strike of senior doctors, which included medical staff at Wairarapa Hospital.
“Ironically, this week doctors and public dentists are striking because of lack of recruitment in New Zealand for medical specialists.”
Gray said low recruitment numbers makes it difficult for those still in the workplace, calling it a “vicious cycle”.
“That’s the problem,” Gray said.
“We’re not attracting or recruiting people because New Zealand’s just not an attractive place to come to right now.”