Dental care in the Northern Territory

The Melbourne Dental School’s partnership with Miwatj Health in East Arnhem Land is improving local oral health and giving Bachelor of Oral Health students valuable hands-on experience.

L to R: Students Caitlin Wilkie and Laura James

“Students often say: ‘I really got to understand the social barriers to health for Aboriginal peoples in remote communities,” says Professor Julie Satur, Head of Oral Health at Melbourne Dental School.

Before fermentable carbohydrates and sugars entered the Indigenous diet, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders enjoyed good oral health. But the twentieth century brought changes, to a point where the mean number of decayed or missing teeth among Australia’s Indigenous children is almost double that of non-Indigenous children. After the age of 15, decay rates triple.

Statistics like these have encouraged Melbourne Dental School to partner with an Aboriginal community-controlled health service based in Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land – part of the University of Melbourne’s collaboration with the Yothu Yindi Foundation.

The partnership focuses on building community-led oral health projects, services, oral health promotion and research centred on local needs.

“The University brings expertise, but the design and implementation of the programs comes from Miwatj. Two-way learning means Yolngu people have increased control over their oral health,” says Professor Satur.

“We want to build services and health promotion interventions on local expertise. So, as part of our newly drafted Oral Health Plan for the region, one of our aims is to develop oral health champions in the remote communities to help coordinate services and programs and to involve people in those services.”

In 2017, four Bachelor of Oral Health students spent six weeks in Nhulunbuy, assisting the Miwatj team with screening and toothbrushing programs in schools. They learned firsthand about the challenges of providing health services in remote communities and about the sociology of oral health among Aboriginal people. More students will travel to East Arnhem Land this year.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to do something that will make a difference – not just for dental treatment today but for the dental health of communities longer term,” says Dr Satur.

“These are some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia and that’s a shameful thing in a first world country. If we can help treat and reduce oral disease and develop a workforce positively skewed to addressing these issues in partnership with Indigenous people – that would be great.”

Indigenous Development Publication

The Sharing Knowledge and Future Leaders – Indigenous Development publication outlines our Faculty's efforts to make a sustained contribution to better health, education and living standards for Indigenous Australians.