Dental health - some improvements, many problems

Complete tooth loss, or edentulism, decreased for Australians in the late 1990s, but dental problems in general increased, particularly for government concession card-holders, according to a report published today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Oral Health and Access to Dental Care-1994-96 and 1999, shows that the mean number of missing teeth also decreased, as did denture use, but this was not the case for adults who were government concession card-holders.

Director of the AIHW Dental Statistics and Research Unit, Professor John Spencer, said that the evidence indicated that card-holders were experiencing more dental problems than before.

'Our survey figures show that health card-holders in particular are experiencing more toothache, discomfort with dental appearance and avoidance of particular foods in 1999 than in 1994-96', Professor Spencer said.

'The report also shows that while the overall percentage of adults visiting dentists changed little from 1994-96 to 1999, access to dental care by card-holders has deteriorated.

'Of the eligible card-holders who received dental care in 1999, less than 40% had their last dental visit at a public clinic, while the remaining 60% sought care at a private dentist at their own expense, even though they were eligible for public treatment.

'Affordability is an issue. In 1999, 39.3% of card-holders who last visited a public clinic said cost had prevented them from proceeding with recommended or wanted dental treatment in the previous 12 months.

'This was a marked increase on the 28.2% figure for 1994-96. Card-holders are less likely to have dental insurance to help cover costs.'

Professor Spencer said it was also a concern that a slight reduction in the percentage of adults receiving fillings in the previous 12 months (49% down to 46%) was unlikely to be due to a reduction in dental disease. This was because the percentage of people receiving extractions had risen (from 14% to 17%).

The rise in extractions was particularly pronounced in 25-44-year-olds (14% rising to 19%) and among card-holders (16% to 23% for private treatment, and 30% to 33% for publicly-funded treatment).

'There is a need to intervene in the high rate of extractions in young adults and health-card holders if the oral health of adults is to be improved', Professor Spencer said.

20 March 2001


Further information:
Professor John Spencer, DSRU, 08 8303 5438; 0412 220 859
Kaye Roberts-Thomson, DSRU, 08 8303 4454
Media copies of the report: Publications Officer, tel. 02 6244 1032.