The waiting list for young people needing dental surgeries has been stuck stubbornly around 4000 for the past year, and dentists feel “unable” to make a dent.
Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand data released to Newstalk ZB showed, as of the end of March, there were 4001 referrals on the waiting list for children aged 14 and under.
In April 2022, that figure sat at 3949, and got as high as 4134 at the end of January this year.
Dental Association chief executive Mo Amso said they had seen the trend grow over a number of years, and it was a complex problem underpinned by three key problems.
Firstly, New Zealand was not doing well at preventing dental disease.
He said we were seeing a large number of children accessing a lot of sugary food and drinks, which was increasing the amount of disease.
“We are getting more and more children having more and more complex and advanced dental disease than we have ever done in history.”
Secondly, there were challenges regarding access to care, he said.
“We are not able to treat the children as promptly as we would have been able to do so, say, 10 years ago.
“Our healthcare system has not continued to expand to match up with the growth in our population rates in the last five to 10 years.”
Amso said during Covid lockdowns, there was delayed access to care for some children who would have been treated conservatively in the community. Instead, they eventually ended up with worsening disease and needed more complex and advanced dental care in a hospital setting under general anaesthetic, he said.
“Unfortunately, these numbers are increasing at such a rapid rate that it is becoming absolutely impossible to make a dent in without any significant intervention at a policy and Government level.”
Te Whatu Ora data showed the number of dental surgeries carried out in March was 823. That figure fluctuated between 499 in April 2022 and 852 in September 2022.
Amso said delayed access to care also had “significant long-term ramifications”.
For example, an abscess in a child’s mouth that went untreated for prolonged periods of time not only caused them pain and impacted their eating and social behaviour, it also impacted the developing permanent teeth that are growing underneath, he said.
Amso said the third issue was workforce numbers, as they had also failed to keep up with increases in population.
“We’re more or less training the same number of people, for the same number of jobs.
“The growth rate in those jobs and training positions has not increased significantly in the last decade.”
Every year, we generate half the workforce here, and rely on the other half coming from overseas, he said.
Amso said the closed borders “significantly impacted” the number of healthcare workers in the oral sector, and we are seeing the results today.
A number of oral health jobs were added to the Green List Straight to Residence pathway earlier this year.
But Amso thinks it was a bit too little, too late.
“It was good to be recognised as a workforce under pressure, but unfortunately there’s a global demand for the oral health workforce, and we are not attracting any significant numbers from overseas.”
“Our members, dentists and dental specialists, will continue to turn up to work every day frustrated, disheartened and somewhat disengaged, because they feel absolutely unable to tackle those ever-increasing waitlists for children to access general anaesthetic treatment.”
He said the national strategic vision for oral health was almost 20 years old and needed to be looked at.
“The Government must review its strategy for oral health and set a plan for some short, medium and long-term action - significantly focusing on the prevention of disease, treating disease and investing in the workforce that will carry out the oral healthcare prevention and treatment.”
Danica MacLean is an Auckland-based reporter for Newstalk ZB, with a focus on health. She joined NZME in 2017, working for the Northern Advocate and has previously worked for Stuff in Northland.