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Dentists say shortage 'a disaster in the maki -

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Dentists say shortage 'a disaster in the making'

Reporter: Clayton Bloom

MAXINE MCKEW: Welcome to the program. And coming up tonight we'll hear from John Clarke and Bryan
Dawe. They've got some tips this week about the T3 sale. But first, the crisis in Australian dental
care. A nationwide shortage of dentists, coupled with lengthy public waiting lists, is being
described by some in the profession as a national disaster in the making. In some country areas,
dentists are becoming as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth. As older members of the profession
reach retirement, they are fining they can't find anyone to take over their practices, forcing some
to simply close their doors. Suffering the most are those with limited means and few choices. Nick
Grimm reports.

VALERIE SHORTER: I had to wait a week and a half. They told me that and then I thought half an hour
of pain is probably better than going for two weeks. So I pulled my tooth.

NICK GRIMM: Valerie Shorter isn't one to suffer in silence. When she came down with an excruciating
toothache and lost hope of seeing a dentist, she took matters into her own hands.

VALERIE SHORTER: I knew I had to go through another night of no sleeping, so that's when I decided
that I was going the pull the tooth.

VALERIE SHORTER: Yes, this is where it all happened on the night.

NICK GRIMM: So how did you do it?

VALERIE SHORTER: The tooth was so bad at the time, I put the pliers in the kettle to sterilise
them. I then had a couple of glasses of wine, to steady my nerves.

NICK GRIMM: Just a couple?


NICK GRIMM: With the help of a bottle of wine she had won from her local bowling club and a pair of
pinch nosed pliers, the 65 year old great grandmother attacked the root of her problem quite

VALERIE SHORTER: I put it on the tooth firmly, knees hit the floor, pliers hit the floor and the
tooth hit the cupboard and the pain bang, it had gone.

NICK GRIMM: That must have taken nerves of steel?

VALERIE SHORTER: I think there would be a lot more people out there that would have to have done
it. They don't get heard.

DR CHRIS COLE, DENTIST: To have that happening, to me is quite disgusting and the governments that
are allowing that to happen should be ashamed of themselves.

DR PETER PULLINGER, DENTIST: It's a national disaster in the making. It's a crisis.

NICK GRIMM: As a widowed pensioner, Valerie Shorter should be entitled to see a public dentist, but
she's just one of an estimated 650,000 Australians languishing on waiting lists, while State and
Federal Governments argue over who should fix the problem.

JOHN HATZISTERGOS, NSW HEALTH MINISTER: We're doing much better than what the Commonwealth has put
into dental care. We've significantly boosted our expenditure at the same time that the
Commonwealth took away $350 million in 1996 and never replaced it.

NICK GRIMM: The Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, said recently he has no plans to relieve the
States of their responsibility. But critically, it's not just the public dental system failing to
keep up with the demand. Across Australia, even though whose can afford to pay to see a dentist are
having trouble finding one.

CHRIS COLE: How are you today?

NICK GRIMM: Chris Cole owns a dental practice in Armidale in northern NSW, but he's been working
alone since his partner retired two years ago.

CHRIS COLE: The workload certainly is increasing; there is always a patient, as soon as you turn
around, there is another patient ready to come into the chair.

NICK GRIMM: Try as he might, Chris Cole can't find a dentist anywhere in Australia to join his
practice. In large part, he says, because the baby boomer generation of dentists is now approaching
retirement age. Meanwhile, the number of dentists graduating from universities today is about a
third of what it was in the 1970s.

CHRIS COLE: In those 30 years population has well and truly doubled and people are keeping their
teeth longer. There is more teeth to work with and I can't fathom why the system has been run down
so much.

NICK GRIMM: So the dentists just aren't getting trained, they're not coming out of the

CHRIS COLE: The universities aren't making the places available to train the dentists.

NICK GRIMM: The Australian Dental Association says it was education funding cutbacks that caused
the rot to set in. Dentistry is an expensive course to teach, so it's been particularly hard hit,
even though there are plenty of students trying to get in. Go to some smaller towns, like
Tenterfield north of Armidale, and the shortages mean that locals have no dentist at all.
Tenterfield's last remaining dental surgery is now a pizza shop, forced to close when the town's
elderly dentist found he couldn't sell his practice for love nor money.

TREVOR MCFEETERS: We used to have three dentists here in town. When the town was only half the size
we had three dentists and now we are double the size, we have no dentist.

NICK GRIMM: It's a situation which troubles everyone in the town, like George Patch, who is proud
to have reached his late 60s still in possession of two of his own teeth.

GEORGE PATCH: One of these days I'll wake up and they'll be aching and then there is problems then,

MEALS ON WHEELS VOLUNTEER: Grilled fish today.

NICK GRIMM: There are problems already for the town's community services. The local Meals on Wheels
service has to provide special softer meals for those who can't chew their food. Robert Grogan
lives in Tenterfield on a carer's pension, looking after his elderly father who has Parkinson's
disease. 72-year-old John Grogan also has no teeth. He's been waiting for dentures for at least six
years, according to his son, though the elder Grogan himself reckons it's been more like 15 years.

NICK GRIMM: What would it mean to you to get a new set of teeth?

JOHN GROGAN: Well, providing they fit and do everything they should do, it would mean a lot.

NICK GRIMM: It would make a big difference to your life?

JOHN GROGAN: It would, yeah. I would look a bit prettier.

NICK GRIMM: Meanwhile, 38-year-old Robert Grogan recently had 12 teeth removed himself. They had
rotted away since he first went on the dental waiting list with a toothache.

ROBERT GROGAN: I had to wait a couple of years on the waiting list and in that time they got worse
and worse and then I got an infection up the side of me face and had to get on antibiotics because
me face get poisoned from the bad teeth.

NICK GRIMM: Dentists say Robert Grogan is typical of many public patients who go on to the waiting
list in need of a filling, but can't get in to see a dentist until one or more teeth have become so
badly decayed they have to be removed.

ROBERT GROGAN: Well, that is what was my case. I reckon they could have filled them and fixed them
up, but because I had to wait so long, they just got that bad they were past fixable. So you've got
to get them all taken out and get false teeth like me.

NICK GRIMM: And for Robert Grogan, that means going on another waiting list and, well, waiting. But
with Australia gripped by a national skills shortage, State and Federal Governments are arguing
over who should fix the dentist crisis. Now, Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott wasn't available
to be interviewed for this story, but his spokeswoman told us that public waiting lists have been
the sole responsibility of the States and Territories ever since the coalition scrapped the
Commonwealth dental scheme when it came to power 10 years ago. The States aren't very happy about
that arrangement. For example, NSW says it's had to increase its spending by 75 per cent over the
past decade and it can do little more unless the Commonwealth now kicks in with more funds for
university training facilities like this to teach new dentists.

JOHN HATZISTERGOS: There's a shortage of work force overall and what we need to do is increase the
total supply of the number of people who are working in the system so that they will be able to
service the public, irrespective of whether it's in the private sector or public sector.

NICK GRIMM: The Federal Government's response? It points out that this year it announced 60 new
places at universities. But the Australian Dental Association says that's still not enough, and
that an additional $25 million is urgently needed. But like a lot of Australians suffering
toothache, Armidale dentist Chris Cole is sick of waiting for help while governments argue. His
growing desperation to find a colleague has pushed him to travel halfway around the world to

CHRIS COLE: I think it's a ridiculous situation that we've allowed the system to run down so badly
that you've got to go to the measures of travelling overseas to get overseas dentists, where we
should be training our own people.

NICK GRIMM: But instead, Australia is becoming increasingly reliant on overseas trained dentists
coming here to fill some of the gaps, like Dr Imogen Foster who moved from Britain to Burnie in

DR IMOGEN FOSTER, DENTIST: I'm surprised by the state of dental health here. I'm doing more
extractions, for example, than I would previously have done.

NICK GRIMM: Imogen Foster's new boss, Dr Peter Pullinger, spent two years sorting through
immigration red tape so he could get another dentist working in his practice in regional Tasmania.

PETER PULLINGER: We're in a third world crisis situation and that's getting worse and worse and
worse. No one seems to be listening.

NICK GRIMM: So, regardless of whether it's patients pulling teeth with pliers or dentists
travelling far and wide touting for help, individual Australians are taking matters into their own
hands, as governments watch a national crisis get steadily worse.

CHRIS COLE: It's reasonably immoral to go over and find, pinch staff from a country where they are
needed anyway.

VALERIE SHORTER: I know I'm never going to live it down. I know that.

NICK GRIMM: And as Valerie Shorter knows, sometimes doing nothing is simply not an option.

VALERIE SHORTER: Yes. Start a dental clinic, backyard dental clinic myself. It doesn't take a
rocket scientist to pull a tooth, I can tell you.

NICK GRIMM: Have you had any customers yet?