Dental health system failing Australian children

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The oral health of Australian children is a major public health problem, according to authorities. Photo by Milan Jurek.

The oral health of Australian children is a major public health problem, according to authorities. Photo by Milan Jurek.
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Professor John Spencer from the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH) will lead a national study over the next four years to investigate why the system is failing Australia’s children.

“Despite a substantial level of resources – approximately $1 billion dollars annually – being directed to dental services for children in Australia in the last decade, their oral health is still a major public health problem,” Professor Spencer says.

“After several decades of improvement, child oral health has worsened and inequalities have widened.”

Latest statistics show that dental restorations and extractions are the most common reason for hospital admissions among Australian children under 14 years of age.

In 2006 nearly 27,000 children – 8,114 of whom were pre-schoolers – were admitted to hospital for dental work.

“In this study we will be looking at how dental services for our children are organised and delivered, comparing the use of private dentists and school dental services and the outcomes for child oral health,” Professor Spencer says.

“Public programs like the school dental services are not reaching as many children, yet private dental services may be out of the financial reach of many families.”

The nationwide study will also document current levels of oral health and its variation across the child population.

“The challenge is to identify and eliminate barriers to dental health services in Australia, improving service delivery, reducing risks and promoting healthy diets,” says Professor Spencer.

His team from the ARCPOH at the University of Adelaide will partner with all eight State and Territory public dental authorities in the research project. The partners are committing a further $1.7 million to the national study, making the total funding for the study $3 million.

A representative sample of approximately 32,000 children aged 5-14 years old will be drawn from a mixture of public and private schools across Australia.

The project is one of two NHMRC Partnership Project Grants awarded to South Australia in the past month – both to the University of Adelaide.

In total, 16 health and medical research projects across Australia have been awarded $14 million in Federal Government funding for the new Partnership Projects.

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