Natalie Pearn, a 39-year-old single mum from Sydney, went to 20 different dentists begging for help after a state government public dental hospital removed her front teeth but did not replace them.
Had she not managed to find – through her own perseverance – a dentist willing to treat her free of charge last month, Ms Pearn believes she would still be waiting.
“They told me I would have to wait until September this year,” she said.
One of Ms Pearn’s front teeth had been damaged in an accident seven years ago, but she delayed treatment after being told it would cost $1000 for a root canal.
Both the injured tooth and the one next to it died and had to be removed at a public dental hospital last August, which she was only able to qualify for after spending months on Centrelink benefits.
Left with a prominent gap in her smile, Ms Pearn tried to find a private clinic that would agree to a payment plan, but without regular work she was unable to secure credit.
She began hunting for a new job to self-fund the treatment, but said she was laughed out of interviews.
“They treat you like a drug addict because you don’t have teeth,” she said.
“They don’t understand the circumstances, but the first impression is your smile.”
Dentist Jalal Khan, who runs a mobile dental truck that visits remote communities, felt compelled to help Ms Pearn when she showed up at his private practice.
While the dental bridge he gave her cost only $170 to make, the total cost of treatment would have been about $1400.
Dr Khan said his work on the road had “opened my eyes to plight of Australians seeking dental treatment”, citing cases of elderly patients forced to keep using old dentures – which should be replaced at least every seven years – for decades.
The Grattan Institute’s Dr Duckett said most spending on dental care came “straight out of patients’ pockets”.
“People who can’t afford to pay don’t get dental care, unless they go on long, often multi-year waiting lists,” he said.
The problem had costly flow-on affects on the health system, with evidence linking poor oral health with diabetes and heart disease – and patients with acute, untreated dental problems ending up at hospital emergency rooms.
The Australian Council of Social Service has called for an extra $320 million a year to be allocated to public dental care in the upcoming federal budget, in order to work with the states to double the number of adults treated within five years.
ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie said dental care was “a major gap in our universal health system”, and that “decent” treatment was increasingly restricted to people on high incomes.
The Coalition government helps fund state dental services through the national partnership agreement, with $242.5 million allocated over 18 months to June 2019, and a further $107.8 million committed in December to extend services by a year.
But the number of patients to benefit remains relatively low, with the extension allowing for 180,000 additional public patients, a fraction of those who have gone without treatment.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.