The tooth really hurts

It is no mystery why universal dental care has long been placed in the too-hard basket by a succession of New Zealand governments.

The cost - University of Otago professor Murray Thomson told the Otago Daily Times last year he estimated $1.8billion was spent on dentist visits each year in New Zealand - has been an overpowering barrier to what is otherwise a sensible idea.

But will we soon get to a point where the cost of not addressing our national dental crisis is outweighed by the value of introducing universal care?

For this is a crisis. It is a state of decay so bad even the dentists are recoiling in shock, and not just because they - surely - are seeing their customer base diminish as fewer people find room in their budgets to visit the ``murder house''.

It is 10 years since New Zealand last produced a comprehensive survey of our oral health. That indicated one in three New Zealanders was living with untreated tooth decay, and doubtless that ratio has worsened.

The same survey indicated just 40% of New Zealanders regularly went to the dentist. What odds on a fresh survey revealing that number has not just dropped but plummeted?

Regrettably, professional dental care is seen as a luxury for many of our citizens. Skyrocketing house and fuel prices, among other expenses, have put the squeeze on home owners and drivers, and rent and food and power are understandably prioritised by others.

The result is often chronic pain, gum disease and poor oral health with all its potential complications.

For most, going to the dentist is a painful experience, but not for anything related to drilling or extraction. The suffering is related to one's bank account - our story last year reported the average cost of a simple check-up, filling and clean was $645.

Dentists are not necessarily to blame for the cost of the treatment - their training is expensive, and so are the tools of their trade. Also, unlike doctors, dentists do not have patient visits heavily subsidised by the Government. Should they be? Could they be?

A debate around the introduction of universal dental care took another step recently when the Waitemata District Health Board called for a ``comprehensive dental service for all New Zealanders'', not just the children and teenagers who are at present covered.

It claimed people who could not afford to get their teeth sorted were queueing at hospital clinics to get pain relief, temporary fillings or extractions.

The Waitemata and Auckland DHBs formally elected to support the Ministry of Health should it choose to investigate a free or subsidised dental health system.

This first-term Labour Government has a few pressing issues on its plate but there are signs universal dental may come back on agenda. Witness Health Minister David Clark acknowledging there were people ``struggling with Third-World health conditions as a result of bad dental hygiene and inability to access the care and treatment they need.''

Fluoridation of water, and a sugar tax, may also come into the dental debate. But they are topics for another day.

AND ANOTHER THING

It is pleasing to see common sense has prevailed and the annual law camp at the University of Otago has been reinstated.

The camp was canned last year following revelations of excessive drinking and inappropriate behaviour by students.

Now, with some clear rules around nudity and grubby activities like jelly wrestling, as well as a boost in the number and diversity of leaders, the camp is back.

That is good news for the law students, who mostly find the camp a fine opportunity to boost their connection to the faculty, and for those disheartened by the revelations of previous bad behaviour.

 

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