As COVID-19 restrictions temporarily closed dental services across the nation, the RFDS worked on opening a new one in outback SA.
The Oral Health team launched its newest service in September from a van based at Leigh Creek Area School.
“When we advertised that we were visiting Leigh Creek, the entire week was booked out in two days,” Senior Dentist Vaibhav Garg said.
“Even though patients really wanted to visit the dentist, they may have found it difficult due to distance, finances, not being able to find a babysitter for an entire day, or may not have had the knowledge to assess when they should attend.”
It has been a rapidly changing time for the RFDS Remote Oral Health Care team, which has continued to assist patients in remote areas despite COVID restrictions.
In the past year, the RFDS has held 647 scheduled dental consultations across six remote communities, including in Mutitjulu – the second established service location in the Northern Territory.
The Country SA Primary Health Network supported the roll-out of the RFDS’s first telehealth service for dental care. While not replacing hands-on treatment, it allowed the team to maintain connections with the communities it visits.
Pre-COVID-19, services were also significantly expanded in Marree to meet increased demand from the local community living around outback South Australia’s Birdsville Track.
Working from clinics, vans and even landing strips, the RFDS Remote Oral Health Care team has shifted from emergency-focused treatments to a more preventative program including proactively targeting at-risk patients living with diabetes and chronic disease.
It has shifted dental care from being emergency-focused on issues like extractions to a more
“In many communities, we are finding increasing demand for our service. It’s much more than dealing with immediate dental problems - it’s about preventive dentistry and the children learning about caring for their teeth and healthy food choices,” Dr Garg said.
“We are now finding parents are wanting their children to learn more about oral health. The team teaches kids to sing the Tooth Fairy song and to play the ‘Happy Tooth, Sad Tooth’ game to engage children about taking better care of their health.
“We would like to create partnerships with schools to start a new toothbrushing program where we will encourage children to decorate a bag to keep their toothbrush so they can clean teeth at school.”
Hospital flight inspires new recruit
Courtney Woods believes her new job as an Oral Health Assistant was meant to be after first connecting with the RFDS when she fell from a horse aged 14.
The keen horsewoman was airlifted to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide from Kadina on the Yorke Peninsula with a suspected spinal injury and has been a keen supporter of the service ever since.
“I’d fallen from a horse during a novelty racing event and I was in agony. When the plane from the RFDS arrived, it was amazing - the nurse was so calm and helped with the pain,” Courtney says.
“I’ve always loved the Flying Doctor but after this experience, I thought it was even more amazing.”
When the trained dental nurse saw an opening for a Remote Area Oral Health Assistant based in Port Augusta advertised earlier this year, she immediately applied.
“When this job came up, it just seemed perfect. I had always wanted to work remotely, I’ve worked on a station in the Gawler Ranges and this is the most perfect job I could have asked for,” Courtney, who lives in Jamestown, says.
Two months into the job and Courtney has already helped launch the Flying Doctor’s new Leigh Creek Oral Health Service and worked with patients in Andamooka in outback South Australia.
She says it’s a unique role, given equipment required for an entire dental clinic needs to be packed and ready to travel to remote areas by vehicle or plane for every visit.
The team also works closely with communities around educating patients about better oral health care.
Now Courtney is learning more every day, building on her long connection with the Flying Doctor supporting her, along with friends and family members– and having organised ute musters and rodeo events where fundraising was directed to the service.
“There’s such a strong appreciation for the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the country. Everyone realises if something really bad happens that a plane ride to hospital in Adelaide could make all the difference,” she says.
Courtney is one of two new Remote Area Oral Health Assistant recruits to have joined the service in the past few months, the other is Jyssicah Kramer.