Adult users of Australia's public dental clinics are showing higher rates of tooth decay but the health of their gums is improving, according to a new report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Oral health trends among adult public dental patients reports on the level of edentulism (loss of all natural teeth), dental caries (decay) and periodontal (gum) disease among patients attending public clinics between 1995-96 and 2001-02.
Among the findings, the report reveals that in 2001-02 patients across all adult age groups had more decayed teeth-an average of 2.65 decayed teeth per patient-than in 1995-96, when the average was 1.97 decayed teeth per patient.
The average number of missing teeth was also higher overall in 2001-02 compared to 1995-96 (6.35 and 5.50 missing teeth per patient respectively), while the average number of filled teeth fell from 6.62 in 1995-96 to 6.20 in 2001-02.
Figures for the rate of gum disease show an improvement in gum health over time, with the overall percentage of patients recording the most severe gum disease status lower in 2001-02 at 10.3%, down from 13.0% in 1995-96.
Report co-author Dr David Brennan of the AIHW's Dental Statistics and Research Unit said that while the overall rate of severe gum disease had reduced over time, this trend was reversed among patients from regional and remote locations, who also showed a trend towards both increased numbers of missing teeth and decreased numbers of filled teeth.
'One possible explanation for this is the considerably lower availability of dentists outside major urban locations in Australia.
'The financial barriers faced by public dental patients in general-primarily people on low incomes such as aged pensioners and the unemployed-are compounded for those in regional and remote areas by the added burden of geographical remoteness from dental services.'
Dr Brennan said comparisons of this latest study with earlier studies of the wider population and patients from private practice shows higher levels of untreated disease for public patients, who can face lengthy waits for general dental treatment.
'The findings indicate a higher level of untreated dental decay within the surveyed group of public patients.'