Summary

Good oral health is fundamental to overall health and wellbeing (COAG 2015). Without it, a person’s general quality of life and the ability to eat, speak and socialise is compromised resulting in pain, discomfort and embarrassment.

Data on Australians’ oral health status and their use of dental services are limited as no comprehensive national data sources are available. The most complete information about Australians’ oral health status and their use of dental services is available via national population surveys.

Oral health status

Oral health refers to the condition of a person’s teeth and gums, as well as the health of the muscles and bones in their mouth. Poor oral health – mainly tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss – affects many Australian children and adults.

A key indicator of the oral health status of a population is the dental caries experience, that is, having a dmft (for the primary dentition) or DMFT (for the permanent dentition) score greater than zero. The dmft or DMFT score counts the number of teeth that are decayed, missing or filled because of caries. Refer to Key terms in Healthy teeth.

Untreated tooth decay reflects both the prevalence of dental decay in the population and access to dental care for treatment.

Table 1: Oral health status of Australian children and adults

 

Average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth

Proportion with untreated decay

Children aged 5–10 years(a)

1.5

27%

Children aged 6–14 years(b)

0.5

11%

Adults aged 15 years and over(c)

11.2

32%

(a) Data are for 2012–14 and reports caries experience in the primary dentition.

(b) Data are for 2012–14 and reports caries experience in the permanent dentition.

(c) Data are for 2017–18 and reports caries experience in the permanent dentition.

Sources: Ha et. al. 2016; Do and Luzzi 2019.

For more information on the oral health status of Australians refer to chapters on Healthy teeth and Healthy mouths.

Dental services

Dental professionals provide preventive, diagnostic and restorative dental services. They can include dentists, dental prosthetists, dental hygienists, oral health therapists and dental therapists (Dental Board of Australia 2018). All dental professionals must be registered to practise in Australia. There were around 24,000 registered dental practitioners in Australia in 2019.

Dental services are funded, and can be accessed, in a number of ways – privately or through public dental clinics or the Department of Veterans Affairs (based on eligibility). For those who purchased services privately, some may have had all or part of the costs of the service subsidised. In 2020–21:

  • 46.1 million dental services were subsidised by private health insurance providers (APRA 2021) – for more information refer to chapter on Private health insurance.
  • 5.3 million services were subsidised under the Australian Government’s Child Dental Benefits Schedule (Services Australia 2021) which supports provision of basic dental services to eligible children aged 2–17. For more information refer to the section on Child Dental Benefits Schedule.

Dental visits

A dental visit can provide an opportunity for the provision of preventive dental care to maintain existing oral health, as well as treatment services that may reverse disease or rehabilitate the teeth and gums after damage occurs.

The National Child Oral Health Study 2012–14 (Brennan et al. 2016) found that for children aged 5–14, it was estimated that:

  • Most (57%) had made their first dental visit before the age of 5.
  • The majority (87%) first visited a dental professional for a check-up (rather than for a problem).
  • The majority (81%) had last visited a dental professional in the 12 months prior to the survey and most (57%) had last visited a private dental service.
  • 1 in 9 (11%) had never visited a dental provider.
  • The proportion of children who last visited a dental professional for a check-up (which reflects a favourable visiting pattern) varied by household income. Nearly 9 in 10 children (88%) living in households with high income last visited the dentist for a check-up, compared with 7 in 10 children (71%) from households with low income.

The Patient Experience Survey 2020–21 (ABS 2021) found that for people aged 15 and over, it is estimated that:

  • Nearly half (48%) visited a dental professional in the last 12 months.
  • Of those who needed to and saw a dental professional, the majority (54%) visited more than once in the last 12 months.
  • Around 1 in 9 (11%) people who saw a dental professional received public dental care.
  • Around 3 in 10 (32%) who needed to see a dental professional delayed seeing or did not see one at least once in the previous 12 months—and around 1 in 7 (15%) reported that cost was a reason for delaying or not seeing a dental professional.

For more information about dental visits refer to chapter on Dental care.

As well as visits to dental professionals, there were close to 67,000 hospitalisations for dental conditions that could have been prevented with earlier treatment in 2019–20. The rate of potentially preventable hospitalisations for dental conditions was highest in those aged 5–9 years (8.6 per 1,000 population). For more information refer to chapter on Hospitalisations.

Spending

In 2019–20, around $9.5 billion was spent on dental services in Australia. The majority of this cost (around $5.5 billion, or 58%) was paid by patients directly, with individuals spending on average $216 on dental services over the 12-month period, not including premiums paid for private health insurance (AIHW 2021). Private health insurance providers financed around $2.0 billion (20%) of total expenditure for dental services (AIHW 2021). For more information refer to chapter on Costs.

Impact of COVID-19 on dental services

The Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has had an impact on both patients and dental professionals in terms of the number of services, type of services and the way in which services are delivered.

Early in the pandemic, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) issued advice to National Cabinet that recommended dental practices implement restrictions whereby dental professionals should only perform dental treatments that do not generate aerosols, or where treatment generating aerosols is limited and that all routine examinations and treatments should be deferred. These types of restrictions have been implemented and eased at various times over the course of the pandemic.

Events that may have impacted on service use over the period March 2020 to October 2021 across Australia, include:

  • March 2020 – national lockdown introduced
  • June 2020 – second wave of COVID-19 cases in Victoria
  • August 2020 – Lockdown in Victoria
  • October 2020 – Victorian lockdown eased
  • December 2020 – outbreak of cases in Sydney’s Northern Beaches  
  • January to March 2021 – brief snap lockdowns in some states and territories to contain COVID-19 spread    
  • July to October 2021 – a series of extensive lockdowns and/or extended lockdowns in New South Wales, Victoria, and Australian Capital Territory.

In 2020–21, around 1 in 8 (12%) adults aged 15 years and over delayed seeing or did not see a dental professional at least once in the last 12 months due to COVID-19. For more information, refer to chapter on Patient experience.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on the oral health status of Australians and their use of dental care services see:

Visit Dental & oral health for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2020). Patient Experiences in Australia: summary of findings, 2020-21, ABS website, accessed 22 February 2021

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) Health Expenditure Australia 2019-20, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 31 January 2022

APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) 2021. Private health insurance benefits trends, September 2021: ancillary benefits. Sydney: APRA.

Brennan DS, Ju X, Amarasena N, Dooland M, Peres KG, Mejia GC et al. 2016. Patterns of dental services use by Australian children. In: Do LG & Spencer AJ (eds). Oral health of Australian children: the National Child Oral Health Study 2012–14. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) Health Council 2015. Healthy Mouths, Healthy Lives: Australia’s National Oral Health Plan 2015–2024. Adelaide: South Australian Dental Service.

Dental Board of Australia 2018. Registration. Melbourne: Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. Accessed 2 February 2022.

HA DH, Roberts-Thomson KF, Arrow P, Peres KG & Do LG 2016. Children’s oral health status in Australia, 2012–14. In: Do LG & Spencer AJ (eds). Oral health of Australian children: the National Child Oral Health Study 2012–14. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Do, L and Luzzi, L, 2019. Oral health status. In: ARCPOH. Australia’s Oral Health: National Study of Adult Oral Health 2017–18. Adelaide: The University of Adelaide, South Australia.

Services Australia 2022. Medicare Australia Statistics: Medicare Group Reports Canberra: Department of Human Services. Accessed 14 February 2022