Coronavirus restrictions may be easing for dental practices, but for people like Christopher - who has no teeth and only consumes pureed food - the resuming of professional dental care doesn't get him any closer to being able to afford the expensive treatment he so desperately needs.
Preview above: Insight looks at why so many Australians are struggling with poor dental health and what effect bad teeth has on your life. The Dental Gap, Tuesday May 5, 8:30pm and on On Demand.
Since late March, dentists have been unable to see patients except for emergencies, due to the coronavirus pandemic. As these restrictions begin to ease, dental issues can now be attended to again. But it's clear the coronavirus isn't the only hurdle keeping people out of the dental chair.
President of the Australian Dental Association, Dr Carmelo Bonnano says most procedures can now be resumed except for ones that use tools that generate an aerosol, like ultrasonic scalers.
“Dentists have always been at the cutting edge of infection control so dental surgeries are super safe places to be," he says.
But it’s not completely business as usual, with some people now unable to afford dental work due to financial difficulty experienced as a result of the summer bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Bonnano explains.
However, Australians delaying a trip to the dentist due to financial restraints is nothing unusual. Dental care has long been a glaring gap in our health system. In 2018, about two million Australians who required dental care either missed out or delayed getting it because of the cost. Although oral health affects overall health, the mouth is treated differently to the rest of the body, with no universal health scheme like Medicare covering it.
Christopher Byrne, 44, from Launceston, Tasmania, is currently living with no teeth. He lives off pureed food and protein shakes. He’s already spent in excess of $30,000 on his teeth and can’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars he’s been quoted to fix his teeth with implants.
“I was once a bright, outgoing guy full of life, losing my teeth has changed me like a disease,” says Christopher. “I don’t think people realise how much of an impact this one thing can have, not having any teeth, it changes your face shape. I feel ugly, I don’t smile.”
Christopher once enjoyed his front-of-house hospitality job, but the declining state of his teeth meant he had to change his profession.
“I’m a car detailer now, I don’t come in contact with the public much at all now. As my teeth have gotten worse I’ve lost a lot of self-confidence and I feel like people don’t want to see my mouth.”
As well as finical reasons, Dr Bonnano says fear is the other major reason why Australians avoid going to the dentist.
Real estate agent Terese Loverso, 53, has had a chronic fear of the dentist from childhood. In her forties, the poor state of her teeth was negatively affecting her work, her health and her relationships.
“I didn't go to the dentist for over 20 years because of my phobia and my fear of going to the dentist. My teeth became loose, they were rotten, there were massive gaps, I had extreme bad breath, gum disease," Loverso tells Insight.
"It changed, you know, the way my interaction with my partner was because I didn't want to kiss him. It became even more of a phobia of trying to survive day-to-day and I eventually had to do something about it but I remember saying to my partner now 'I just can't, I can't go, you know, I need some help'.”
Three years ago Terese ended up getting all her teeth removed under anaesthetic. She chose to replace them with top and bottom implants which cost her around $50,000, using equity from her home to pay for her new teeth.
“I still get up in the morning and look in the mirror and I’m ecstatic.”
She says the benefits are not only cosmetic.
“My dentist said if I didn’t do something about all the infection running through my body from my rotted teeth, it could’ve been dangerous. So it’s not only the cosmetic side, it’s the health side of it."
But Christopher Byrne can’t afford the $35,000 he’s been quoted for implants and the public system doesn’t cover the treatment he needs to have teeth again. He predicts it’ll take him five years to save for new teeth.
“I’ve got three and a half thousand so that’s 10 per cent so far.”
On this episode of Insight we meet people whose lives have been impacted by having bad teeth and we ask dentists what needs to be done to fix the poor state of Australia’s oral health?