Skip to content

Taking dental care to where it’s needed most

Nicole Henty

Alumna Nicole Henty is using mobile clinics to address unmet dental needs in rural and remote Tasmania, reducing the number of children and adults ending up in emergency rooms.

In her role as RFDS Tasmania’s Mobile Dental Care manager, Nicole develops outreach programs that target school children, people in aged-care facilities and adults in rural and remote locations.

She also oversees a team of dentists, dental therapists and dental assistants who utilise fixed clinics and a mobile dental vehicle to deliver the necessary treatments.

“Dental issues are one of the most common preventable reasons for hospital presentations,” she said.

“There are a lot of people in need in Tasmania, with children as young as four going to hospital to have teeth removed under general anaesthetic to manage their high decay rate.

‘’We are there to break down the barriers that stop people getting their tooth problems fixed before it gets critical, and to provide the education to improve oral health care overall.’’

Nationally, the RFDS provided 13,627 episodes of dental care in 2019–20, with funding support from the Federal and State governments, organisations and individual donors. This included fly-in fly-out care as well as mobile vans. The service was increased in 2016 after the Federal Government identified ongoing unmet needs, both to expand existing services and implement new services where required.

“In Tasmania, we didn’t have an RFDS dental service, so we built ours from the ground up,” said Nicole, who holds an Associate Degree in Applied Business (Local Leadership) from the University of Tasmania.

So far, the RFDS Tasmania dental team, which began in 2017, has provided care to more than 4000 people across settings defined as rural, remote or very remote. It operates out of one mobile dental vehicle with another expected to be in use mid-2022, thanks to support from Woolnorth Renewables.

The dental team also uses five fixed dental clinics in places like Queenstown, King and Flinders Islands and Swansea.

It doesn’t operate out of regional centres where dental care is already provided, Nicole explains. Instead, it focuses on areas of unmet need and removing barriers, such as transport difficulties and cost.

“Oral health is the only health area not covered by Medicare and the cost of dentistry is significant,” she said.

“Many people can’t afford it, so it’s put on the back burner. For some people it’s a choice about dental care or putting food on the table.

“We had large stakeholder engagement, involving round-table discussions with schools, pharmacies and indigenous groups.

“We wanted to understand what the community needs were so these communities would feel supported and that we had addressed their needs.”

RFDS Tasmania CEO John Kirwan said transport was proving a large concern for many of the people seeking services from the RFDS.

“Some of the issues being raised regularly with our staff are the cost of travel and time, the ability to access a car or not having a licence as well as the lack of public transport or not having money for fuel,” Mr Kirwan said.

He said the mobile dental service highlights that the RFDS is about more than planes and shows it can reach people in small towns and other remote locations with critical services.

Nicole is grateful for her training through University College and her many tutors, who she describes as mentors.

“The Associate Degree broadened my thinking and gave me the confidence to keep exploring,” she said.

“It allowed me to bring my life experiences, my business experience and skills, to a new level and informed how I connect with communities and staff.

“It taught me that you can be on a particular journey, but on the basis of new research, change your thinking to benefit an organisation now; it’s about quality change, backed up by evidence.”

Image credit:  Alumna Nicole Henty by Phillip Biggs

This article featured in the monthly eNews Alumni and Friends. If you are a member of the University of Tasmania community and would like to receive this publication, please provide or update your email address.

Published on: 09 Feb 2022 6:28pm