Rotting teeth a million-dollar problem
Hundreds of Manawatu¯ children with rotten teeth are costing the MidCentral District Health Board more than $1 million a year.
More than 300 children are put under general anaesthetic each year to have the teeth pulled, costing about $4000 each, Phil Marshall, clinical director of MidCentral DHB school dental services said.
About 100 more children and young people are waiting for the much-needed treatment.
And the problem is only getting worse.
National Ministry of Health figures show the teeth of 6600 children were so diseased, they needed intervention under general anaesthetic last year.
Although Manawatu¯’s numbers were ‘‘middle of the road’’ compared with those figures, they were getting worse, Marshall said.
‘‘Those numbers seem to have gone up rather than down. We don’t seem to have made any real inroads.
‘‘They are not particularly good, I have to say.’’
As well as the more serious cases, MidCentral has a backlog of nearly 8000 children and young people overdue to be seen by a dentist or dental technician. Most are scheduled to be seen once a year.
The number waiting has grown from 5437 in late 2016. Late last year, MidCentral said it expected to cut the backlog in half by June 2017 by doing something about staff shortages, but this has not happened.
The service should have about 22 staff members, but instead has only 17 people and faces ongoing challenges recruiting, Marshall said.
Dental technicians’ training had been expanded, allowing them to qualify for more lucrative jobs in private practice, while bigger salaries offered in Auckland were also pulling some away from the regions, he said.
Dental problems can be a serious threat to health and wellbeing through blood infections, damage to children’s hearing and heart, developmental challenges because of difficulty speaking, and learning because of mouth pain.
The problems were partly due to a change in the way dental services were delivered to children, which had resulted in less time being spent teaching children about good dental habits, Marshall said.
About 10 years ago, dental services for children were restructured nationally by the ministry, with a shift to investments in dental hubs and mobile dental clinics. Dental clinics in schools were widely phased out.
‘‘Originally, the therapists had a lot of time at schools, but they don’t have the luxury for that now, so you’ve seen extensive decay and they refer them to the hospital for a general anaesthetic. As time goes on, nationally, that number has increased significantly.’’
Fixing the problem would take another restructure and major investment, he said.
Children from poorer socioeconomic areas were more prone to serious dental health problems, matching national trends, he said. This was often because parents were passing on bad dental care routines.
Horowhenua and Tararua, where the water was not fluoridated, also had worse statistics for decay in children under five, Marshall said.
Serious dental issues can cause dangerous health problems, pain and learning difficulties for children.