The gift of good teeth


The surgery at the oral health clinic boasts state of the art equipment. Photo: Emily Garbett.

A free WA dental clinic is increasing its service to the homeless and disadvantaged after a recent surge in patient demand.

Run by St Patrick’s Community Support Centre in Fremantle, the oral health centre, which opened in August last year, was previously only open two days a week.

But after being inundated by patient requests and implementing an official waiting list, the clinic has now begun operating up to as many as four days a week.

St Patrick’s chief executive Steve McDermott said the clinic was having a positive effect on both the physical and mental health of its patients.

“Clients are receiving services they previously could not or would not access and are experiencing decreased pain and discomfort and increased well being and self esteem,” he said.

Mr McDermott also said it was important to have the clinic in a familiar place in the community to encourage clients to visit.

“It was important to locate the clinic in a place that was already recognised among the target group as safe and welcoming,” he said.

The clinic offers a wider range of treatments including extractions, scale and cleans, fillings and dentures, with the help of dental laboratories and suppliers.

St Patrick’s Dental Centre clinical lead Dominic Longo said dental care was underrated and the clinic was important because successful treatment had a major impact on all areas of a patient’s life.

“You get patients who suddenly have a pair of dentures and they just go around showing everybody because they have teeth and they feel like they can actually smile or talk to someone or apply for a job, and just do what we all take for granted,” he said.

“You don’t have to do much to make a huge impact for someone. It’s as simple as just giving them the time of day.”

The clinic has more than 40 dentists from around Perth volunteering their time, and has provided more than $202,000 worth of treatments since opening.

“After a year, we’re still finding our feet and I’m just trying to make sure we get a consistent flow of dentists so that the operation of the place is similar to any other dental practice in Perth,” Mr Longo said.

Co-Founder of the Perth Homeless Support Group Michael Edwards gave a personal insight into how the clinic is helping.

“Recently we we approached one of the homeless and he was extremely distressed after having his back pack snatched from him the previous night,” Mr Edwards said.

“He was mostly distressed about losing his false teeth, both top and bottom. They were in the backpack. Thanks to St Patricks he is in the process of having a new set prepared for him.

“Without this service he would not have been able to replace them and would live a life without teeth. Many homeless have appalling dental hygiene and St Patricks provides a service that otherwise would not be available to those sleeping rough.”

Mr Longo said a volunteer-run practice had challenges, but the best way to approach the running of the clinic was for dentists to treat it like their own dental practice.

“Just because it’s pro bono treatment doesn’t mean we can’t do the best possible treatment,” he said.

Mr Longo also praised the hard work of the dental nurses volunteering their time.

“Dental Nursing Australia have provided us with a hard working group of trainee dental nurses and supervisors who assist the clinic on a day-to-day basis,” Longo said.

“Quite frankly the place wouldn’t run without the help and assistance of them.”

For the past year, St Patrick’s had relied on donations and voluntary support but Dr Longo said financial issues and finding funding were the biggest hurdles in maintaining the clinic.

“After about a year, it’s a very busy place and a lot of work gets done so the next challenge is to get it to be sustainable because you can’t rely on donations all the time,” he said.

City of Fremantle’s community development manager Beverly Bone said fundraising for St Patrick’s was a council priority.

“The City of Fremantle does not contribute directly to this program, however the City does operate the ‘Donate Without Doubt campaign that raises money to support St Pats,” she said.

Ms Bone said the distrust of unfamiliar practices was the main reason the homeless did not seek out oral care.

“The target group for the St Pats service – the homeless, at risk of homelessness, and those with serious and persistent mental health – are unlikely to seek out the oral health services they need through mainstream services,” she said.

“This is not only due to inherent distrust of the system, but also a lack of knowledge of how to access and navigate the system, the need for compliance with procedure, appointment and time keeping, and so forth.”

Ms Bone believed the services offered at St Patrick’s were better equipped to deal with this particular client base.

“Mainstream services are often not well equipped to deal with the special difficulties and needs of this particular client group, but St Pat’s service addresses this issue by embedding the service within a centre dedicated to the needs of this client group which is a trusted and safe space for them,” she said.

A scale and clean at many dental practices in Perth is around $120 and while public services are available the waiting time can be up to three years and treatments can still be costly.