Better use of oral therapists key to universal dental care

A simple change in how public dental care is delivered could save millions in taxpayer funds and reduce waitlists that force disadvantaged Australians to wait years for dental treatment.

In Australia, oral conditions are the second most common cause of acute, potentially preventable hospitalisations, and currently nearly a third of children aged five to six have never visited a dental practitioner.

This study looked at making better use of oral health therapists in the delivery of public dental services.   It showed that if the Federal Government’s national scheme to increase dental care access for children was administered by oral health therapists, it could save $67 million from the program’s annual expenditure.

An oral health therapist undertakes a three-year bachelor degree, compared to five to seven years of training for dentists. Their work is narrower in scope and focussed on prevention, including check-ups, teeth cleaning, simple fillings and some teeth removal. On average, the cost is 30% less for carrying out these procedures.

While the oral health therapy workforce provides high-quality and cost-effective dental services within their scope of practice, the current Australian dental workforce mix requires dentists to deliver routine services that could be provided by an oral health therapist at a reduced cost.

Lead author Tan Nguyen, from the Institute’s Deakin Health Economics, suggested the potential cost-savings could be re-invested in other public dental initiatives such as school-based dental check programs, or resource allocation to eliminate adult dental waiting lists in the public sector, which can run up to three years or more.

“There are more sustainable ways to deliver public dental services, and this economic analysis shows a better use of resources is possible,” Mr Nguyen said.