Free dental care for homeless
A University of Adelaide project launched in 2011 providing free dental care to the city's homeless is also giving students and staff a chance to hone their skills and help those less fortunate.
When fourth-year dental student Chamika Wijayasena signed up for his degree course in 2008, he never expected an elective in voluntary work.
But he's now an integral part of a new project to help Adelaide's homeless and financially disadvantaged improve their dental health and he couldn't be happier.
Chamika is one of 30 University of Adelaide staff, students, private dentists and allied dental health professionals who are volunteering their time for several hours a week, working out of a small clinic situated in Common Ground, an affordable housing development for low income earners and the homeless in Adelaide's Light Square.
Thanks to a $250,000 Federal Government grant and $5000 from the Wrigley Foundation, the University's Dental School has been able to fit out a clinic and medical/allied health training rooms within Common Ground.
University of Adelaide dental hygienist and manager of the Common Ground dental project, Margie Steffens, said the project is addressing more than oral health.
"There is a very close link between dental health and emotional and mental health," she said. "If people have serious dental problems or really bad teeth, it can affect them both psychologically and physically, and vice versa."
"As everyone knows, accessing dental care is expensive for everyone, let alone the homeless and low income earners. By providing this service we can keep other health problems at bay and ensure people who can't afford basic dental care are not disadvantaged."
The project is also providing real benefits for the University's dentistry students, helping to hone their basic oral health skills in a non-traditional setting as well as giving back to the community.
Nearly 40% of Australians cannot access basic dental care when they need it, with long waiting lists stretching out to years for the lower income sector.
South Australia alone has more than 7500 homeless people, with 41% of those aged between 12 and 24 years.
Project team member Associate Professor Peter Cathro said homeless adults in metropolitan locations have a much higher prevalence of poor oral health than those in the general population.
"Our own assessments have shown that homeless people need twice as many fillings and extractions than the rest of the community. As dental professionals it's imperative that we look at how we can develop a means to provide appropriate dental care to this hard-to-reach and vulnerable group," Dr Cathro said.
While Federal Government funding has helped to get the project off the ground, in the long term it needs to be sustainable, Margie said.
"We are fortunate that a lot of our staff and students, as well as Adelaide dentists, are giving their time free of charge to run the clinic. We need to keep the momentum because this service is absolutely critical for a population that often misses out."
University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor James McWha, said the voluntary project was an outstanding example of "town and gown" working together for the community's benefit.
"One of the yardsticks used to measure the quality of a university is its engagement with the surrounding city and its relevance and impact on society. This project meets all the criteria and also gives students an opportunity to see dentistry in a completely different light," Professor McWha said. ■
Story by Candy Gibson