Some Southlanders are waiting up to four months to see a dentist.
The New Zealand Dental Association is calling for government support in Southland where patients are waiting more than four months to see a dentist.
A shortage of dentists has been exacerbated by the most recent alert level 3 and 4 lockdowns, which meant three weeks of appointments had to be rescheduled.
Southland dentists are feeling burnt out, while patients are at risk of losing their teeth as tooth decay, gum disease or other dental diseases progressively become worse.
Dental Association Southland president Dr Kate Tiriaere said dentists were unable to see any new patients as they were overbooked caring for their existing patients.
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A report expected to be tabled at a Southern District Health Board Community and Public Health Advisory Committee meeting on Monday says six vacancies in Southland private dental practices are putting extra pressure on the DHB’s dental unit, which is also short-staffed.
Another two experienced dentists retired last week, Tiriaere said, and there was little hope of replacing them soon.
“We have a dentist with a visa who wants to work in Southland, but he is unable to get a spot in MIQ,” she said.
Multiple practices have been advertising for months to years, with increasingly generous packages being offered – to no avail.
“Southland attracts young graduates, but we often fail to keep them, and we lose them to the ‘big smoke’ or to be closer to family in other regions.”
Another contributing factor was an ageing population with healthier lifestyles who were keeping their teeth longer, Tiriaere said, while patients who had not been seen in years were starting to visit the dentist on a more regular basis – “possibly due to the fear of having toothache during another lockdown.”
“Simply put, there is more demand than supply.”
Patients who felt unable to wait or unable to access dental care were being forced to travel outside of Southland to have their dental needs met, Tiriaere said.
“This is all very well for those that can take time off work and afford the travel expense, but not affordable for the already more vulnerable population of Southland.”
A spokesperson for Lumino in Invercargill said the branch was booked until the end of January.
“It’s the same with most practices in Invercargill,” she said.
The Lumino network is redeploying dentists unable to work in Auckland under lockdown restrictions – under the Ministry of Health’s robust exemption process – and an Auckland dentist has been helping in Invercargill for the past week to help tackle the backlog.
The practice is fielding 10 calls a day from people looking for dentist.
Gore Health business manager Rhonda Reid said Birch Lane Dental had luckily been able to replace one of its dentists recently, but was not taking new patients.
“We’re turning away a lot of people because we don’t have capacity,” she said.
All Southland dentists worked on the emergency roster and after hours care had been busier than ever, Reid said, with many patients travelling from Invercargill.
Fewer dentists also meant those who were in the region had to be on call more often.
New Zealand Dental Association president Dr Erin Collins said the association had previously called for incentives, and support from the government to improve the situation in Southland.
“Further research is required into provision of health services in rural New Zealand,” he said, adding: “We would welcome further meetings with the Minister of Health to discuss ways to improve the dental heath of all New Zealanders.”
Four Southland practices, including ones from Invercargill and Te Anau, were at the NZDA Employment Fair in September, and Collins was hopeful they managed to attract dentists south.
Dentists would need to be incentivised to practice in the region, he said.
This could include attractive employment packages and remuneration, assistance with housing or relocating and student loan repayments, and good collegial and community support.