- More than a third of children in Te Tauihu (the top of the south) are overdue their dental check-up
- A shortage of oral health therapists means there are six full-time vacancies across the district
- Parents will be asked to shift their children to dentists from year 7, instead or year 9, to ease the load
More than a third of tamariki in Te Tauihu (the top of the south) are overdue their dental check-up amid a “perfect workforce therapist storm”.
With six full-time roles vacant and a lack of oral health therapists nationwide, the backlog isn’t expected to be cleared until 2024.
Nelson Marlborough Health is now working to shift children into private dental practices early to ease the pressure – a move supported by local dentists.
The Community Oral Health Service typically had 14.5 full-time equivalent oral health therapists operating across the top of the south.
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But only 59% of those roles are filled, and the remaining six vacancies are unlikely to be filled until a batch of new graduates enter the job market.
Unlike dental therapists, oral health therapists are dual qualified in oral health therapy and dental hygiene.
Nelson Marlborough Health general manager strategy, primary and community Cathy O’Malley said the regional service was in a “perfect workforce therapist storm”, with vacancies across the district.
“We are hopeful that we will be successful in filling all vacancies with new graduates from late 2022 to early 2023. However, we are aware that there is a lot of demand across New Zealand and in Australia for these graduates.”
The shortage of therapists was being felt across the country by all DHBs, but most had fewer vacancies than Nelson-Marlborough, she said.
“Even DHBs that have much higher arrears only have up to 20% therapist vacancies.”
The service provides free dental care to children, who are then shifted to the care of private dental practices when they reach high school.
The impact of the vacancies was that 35% of children were overdue their check-up- made worse by Covid-19 lockdowns, O’Malley said.
“Although we try to ensure that those at the most risk of poor oral health are seen within time frames, the impact on patients is that some are not seen in a time frame that would be considered by our service as best practice.”
The national standard is that fewer than 10% should be overdue.
O‘Malley said reaching that target “simply is not possible without a therapist workforce”.
“If we achieve a full workforce, and with the current initiatives we would hope to achieve this target by early 2024.”
One key initiative is working with dental practices across the region to refer children earlier, freeing up capacity for the Oral Health Service.
Under the plan, children will be able to transfer to a participating dentist in year 7, instead of year 9.
O’Malley said the care would still be free, and parents and caregivers would be sent a letter offering early referral.
“We are very grateful to for the excellent support we are having from local private dental practices who have agreed to temporarily take over the oral health care of intermediate children.”
New Zealand Dental Association Nelson branch community liaison Andrew Marriott said local dentists had been happy to help, and it was a good short-term solution while the service got back on track.
“We’re all working as a big team … we want the best treatment of the kids.”
Only a couple of dentists hadn’t signed up, and that was due to a lack of capacity, he said.
“The whole of the dental community’s come on board.”
Maintaining healthy teeth from a young age was vital, he said.
“The downstream effects of poor dental health or not getting on to things early is immense and can’t be underestimated.”
While therapists were in short supply, the region was fortunate to have attracted a good workforce of dentists, including new graduates, he said.
Other Nelson Marlborough Health initiatives are Saturday clinics in Blenheim and Nelson; use of a bonding scheme to encourage graduates to move here; looking at short-term employment options for therapists; and working to retain staff for as long as possible.