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Associate Prof Jonathan Broadbent, who led the study, said a national protocol was needed to improve the lot of both refugees and at-risk groups of New Zealanders, clarifying which dental care services were available and funded, and how they should be accessed. More than 70% of the 62 former refugees surveyed reported dental pain and fewer than 40% had had a dental check-up in the 18 months since their arrival.
"Dental clinicians and refugees are both placed into a different situation when pathways are unclear," Associate Prof Broadbent said.
Nearly 40% said lack of dental treatment caused them "psychological disability", for instance when it came to socialising with other people. One said he wanted treatment because he felt self-conscious and had "no confidence to smile", and 21.7% faced functional limitations due to a lack of dental care.
The city became a resettlement centre for refugees back in 2015, and since then Dunedin has become home to about 500 refugees, most of whom are from Syria. Almost all refugees surveyed qualified for limited financial assistance for dental care in New Zealand, but nearly half reported they had not received assistance and many were not aware of the options available. When they were in Syria, the refugees he surveyed had "comprehensive" dental treatment, but in most cases that had been followed by five years of neglect.
Prof Broadbent said he was not asking for special treatment for refugees, but wanted a standardised protocol nationwide for all at-risk groups. In the past, he has called for more preventive treatment for New Zealanders who cannot afford dental care and treatment to remedy cavities before they become serious, after findings from the Dunedin Study showed people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds on average lost six times as many teeth to decay as people from wealthier backgrounds.
For former refugees in Dunedin, limited oral health services are available through the Former Refugee Dental Care Programme. Provided by the Faculty of Dentistry at the university, and the WellSouth Primary Health Network (PHO), the dental care programme offers former refugees settling in Dunedin an initial programme of basic dental care. Care beyond this can be provided by the Faculty of Dentistry or other dental providers on a fee-for-service basis.