Whanganui dentist says grants of up to $1000 a year could be transformational to care for low income patients

Dentists Dr Adam Durning (left), Dr Jino Kunnethedam and dental assistant Jessi Podjursky at The Dentists clinic in Whanganui. Photo / Bevan Conley

Whanganui dentists hope the new $1000 dental grants for people on a low income will bring transformational change to the care they can give.

As part of Budget 2022 the Government increased its dental grants administered by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) from $300 to $1000.

The increased sum becomes available from December 1 this year.

The Dentists co-director and dentist Dr Adam Durning said it could potentially turn around their current situation of having to be “ambulances at the bottom of the cliff”.

“What we can do now is [say] … ‘you know what, Jim? You’ve got this tooth, why don’t we treat that, why don’t we do a couple of fillings here, why don’t we do a removal here, why don’t we stabilise your mouth – that’s $1000 this year’.

“Hopefully by our assessment that’ll get them a year with no pain and then we’ll say ‘Jim, come back in a year and then we’ll do that tooth, that tooth and that tooth’.”

Over a period of five years dentists would then be able to deliver transformational results, Durning said.

Hadleigh Reid said some patients only come when their tooth already has a serious problem and solutions can be limited and "not very nice". Photo / NZME
Hadleigh Reid said some patients only come when their tooth already has a serious problem and solutions can be limited and “not very nice”. Photo / NZME

Dr Hadleigh Reid runs Victoria and Cliff Dental and said people often came to see him once a tooth was a problem.

“Often when there’s a problem that’s evident to the individual – it’s pretty bad and the treatment options are not very nice.”

He had been asking MSD to increase the dental grant for years and was pleased with the increase.

“I’ve been working for 20 years and that’s [the grant] always been $300. They’ll give you $300 but they’ll let you borrow more sometimes. It depends.”

Seeing people more regularly, Reid hoped his clinics would be able to offer more longer-term help and not just deal with issues when they crop up.

“MSD is very good at working with their clients and with us at providing funds to get treatment done. They target the emergency stuff – anything causing pain or infection, primarily.

“Often we are able to get some false teeth, dentures and the like made for patients, which can have quite a drastic effect on people’s self-esteem and ability to look for a job.”

Durning said he had big plans to go through their list of thousands of patients who had visited for quotes and try to inform them of the increased grants.

Whanganui Budget Advisory Service manager Sandy Fage said a lot of her clients say they simply cannot consider dental care as it is too expensive.

“… until the problem becomes so bad they are not able to defer it any longer,” Fage said.

“That usually results in an extraction [paid for by the MSD $300 grant], which is not the best option in dental care.

“I am hopeful that the $1000 will mean teeth problems can be treated rather than having the tooth removed.”

But she said the grants were a band-aid for larger social problems, leading to people having serious tooth decay.

To qualify for the MSD dental grants people need their dentist to say it is for urgent work that needs to be done and they must be in pain.

They also must meet income caps that are laid out on MSD’s website for the grants.

What to do with a severe toothache

Emergencies – like infections, bleeding gums, abscessing teeth – can be life-threatening issues, Durning said.

Dr Juno Kunnethedam, who also works at The Dentists, said pain relief could get people over the line if they had problems, but it wasn’t a solution in itself.

If it was after hours, try to get pain relief as soon as possible to get to the point that the problem could be looked at by a dentist, he said.

“I’ve had four or five patients today alone, they tell me ‘I’ve had pain, it started about eight months ago, it’s now too much [and] the pain relief’s not coping with it’.

“At that point … it’s too late. The teeth need removal. If I saw them eight months ago – when that pain started – it’s a filling. It’s something small, we can retain the tooth.”

Reid said his practices tried to save space for emergency cases and he recommended people call their dentist as soon as they could.

“Pain’s obviously very uncomfortable but if patients have swelling that can be potentially life-threatening … [it] is quite a priority. I wouldn’t let those lie for too long.”

The hospital could help with antibiotics or pain killers, Reid said, but he did not think after-hours dental care was available there.

When it came to emergency care, Durning said he wanted his clinic to assess people and make a decision based on the whole of the mouth.

“We need to get enough information so we can sit in front of you and actually help you and inform you of what’s going on.

“Every tooth you take out has got ramifications … as soon as you take a tooth out it impacts the rest of your mouth and what’s happening to it. It starts the pathway of heading down to either partial dentures, full dentures or very expensive work.”

Durning said he wanted to be able to give patients a full plan so that they could, in full knowledge of the costs and benefits, make a decision on what they wanted done.

“It’s the fear and the barrier – no one wants to spend money with a dentist and no one really wants to be in the dental chair,” he said.

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