Dental care for rural and remote communities

Date published

23 May 2019
Dental Truck

It may come as a surprise that the Flying Doctor is one of the largest providers of oral and dental health services in the country, reaching those areas other healthcare providers can’t access. Last year alone, the RFDS’ fly-in, fly-out, mobile and outreach services provided 10,832 instances of dental care across Outback Australia, 1490 of these in Queensland.

It was only five years ago that the RFDS was fortunate to have partnered with the QCoal Group, a Queensland based mining company, together bring much needed dental services to remote communities that were struggling to attract a dentist.

In the past five years this now Commonwealth funded service has visited 21 rural communities across Queensland, travelling 54,000km and treating more than 10,000 patients, delivering $6.4 million in dental services. The five-person team operates from an 18-wheel semi-trailer that features two state-of-the-art dental surgeries, a sterilisation area, a reception desk, kitchenette and the latest panoramic X-ray equipment.

“We stay in communities for generally about two weeks, although we can extend it if the demand is there,” says Annette Saleta, RFDS State Services Co-ordinator.

“We go to communities that don’t already have dentists, either private or public. In the last 12 months, we’ve been working with the Hospital and Health Services within the state to ensure we are reaching those communities who are most in need,” says Ms Saleta.

The historical lack of access means a large number of people living in regional communities are dealing with a range of oral and dental problems. Most common, RFDS dentist Alex Stipis says, is periodontal (gum) disease and broken-down fillings requiring large fillings or extractions.

“People are putting up with long term infections,” she adds. “I think a lot of the time the patients have only been seen if they’re in a significant amount of pain – that’s really the only motivation to travel the distance to go and see a dentist.”

As well as physical procedures, the dental team provides education on dental and oral health, spreading the message that prevention is better than cure. The result, says Annette Saleta, there is a shift in the treatments the team provides upon return to those communities. “When we first visit a community, there may be a lot of extractions and emergency work and pain relief,” she says. “The more often we go back and visit, the more we see a shift to preventive treatments.”

It’s an observation with which Stipis agrees. “We have some patients who are really motivated and keen to take on the education we provide. Now that we’ve been going back a little bit more, it’s good to see them for less acute problems, not just pain and emergency treatment.”

Being back in community has also seen an improvement in general dental care says Stipis, “in Springsure last month it was the first time we left the community without a single tooth ache or filling on our waiting list, we only had general examinations left and those people had previously seen in us in the prior 12 months.

“We’re slowly beginning to see more of the communities we service moving towards a maintenance model and it’s something that the team is really proud of!”