Whether it’s the sound of the drill, the gaping financial hole in your pocket (and mouth) afterwards, or long wait times, Dr Kris Sweetapple is on a mission to change dentistry’s bad rap.
This year, after accepting a clinical director role at Hawke’s Bay Hospital, he’s now been crowned the New Zealand Dental Association’s Young Dentist of the Year and wants to use his new position to help get dentistry back in the spotlight.
“It’s a great privilege to be recognised by colleagues and nominated for the award,” he told Hawke’s Bay Today.
The 29-year-old ex-Taradale High student said he came into his health science studies at Otago with a “fairly open mind,” and when a position in the dentistry programme came up, he thought that he would “give it a crack”.
He graduated in 2017 with distinction.
“I found it very rewarding. It’s very hands-on which is cool, and you are able to help a lot of people.
“It’s almost like construction in the mouth.”
After graduating, Sweetapple has already had an impressive career with achievements well beyond his years, working in both public and private healthcare environments across New Zealand.
He’s also a notable published academic, having delivered papers focused on oral healthcare in the elderly and long-term care facilities, as well as treatment during Covid-19.
With all his knowledge and skills, he came back to Hawke’s Bay in 2020 in an effort to help improve the perception of dentistry in the regions, acting as an inspiration for young dentists everywhere and working again working in private and public healthcare.
“It just felt like the right place to be. I would’ve come back straight after dental school, but the hospital didn’t have any positions.
“My parents are here, and I always enjoy the Bay. It’s generally great weather, there’s always good places to eat, lots of outdoorsy stuff to do.”
He said he is a big advocate for free dental and that it could really help create better health outcomes.
“Dental care for some reason historically has been isolated from the other areas of health in NZ, and not appropriately funded unless you are under 18 or are eligible for an MSD special needs grant. That often makes it a big burden for patients to come and see [a dentist], particularly in a private practice.
“You’ve got not only the financial burden but also quite often anxiety and fear, so it can sometimes make the job quite challenging.”
Sweetapple said a key to changing the system would be reintegration.
“I think oral health needs to be reintegrated back into general healthcare and have greater funding and provisions available. We essentially call it putting the mouth back in the body.
“You’ve probably heard that the Green Party has been advocating for free dental care universally, and I strongly support more targeted funding.”
For Sweetapple, having a director role meant he could now help implement more effective changes.
“I think it’s a very cool opportunity to have a say at a slightly higher level. As a dentist, you’re making impacts on people’s lives at an individual level, so it’s cool to be able to try and think about things on a wider scale.
“We’re trying to do things like lower dental general anaesthetic waitlists by offering alternative sedation options. We’re also trying to sort out our referral pathways as well.”
When asked who his inspirations were, Sweetapple mentioned ex-chief medical dental officer for Hawke’s Bay DHB (now Te Whatu Ora Hawke’s Bay) Robin Whyman, who acted as a referee and also put Sweetapple’s name forward for the award.
“He’s done nearly everything under the sun in NZ when advocating for dental care in NZ,” Sweetapple said.
Whyman said Sweetapple was passionate about the profession and great to work with.
“He’s come to [the profession] with fresh eyes. It’s really refreshing to have a strong colleague who’s prepared to challenge the system if you like and ask a bit in terms of ‘why do we do it like this perhaps we should do it like this?’”.
Whyman also said it was great to see Sweetapple return to his hometown.
“It’s something we’d like to inspire, particularly for Hawke’s Bay whānau, that we can see our own people coming back and building our community.”
Mitchell Hageman joined Hawke’s Bay Today in late January. From his Napier base, he writes regularly on social issues, arts and culture, and the community. He has a particular love for stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.