Children's dental health should be free

Having had a bit of luck in business over the years, I now have the good fortune to have a small private aeroplane to get me around.

You can learn quite a lot as a back-seat aviator and one of them is the importance of preventive maintenance.

In fact, it's a good rule for living, especially for anything that is mission critical - like airworthy planes .... and personal health.

So, having been born in 1942, I decided to put myself in for annual maintenance.

First came the blood tests and I immediately started to lose my nerve when confronted by nurse Maria, who took so much blood from me last time that I began to suspect that she was selling it on the side. (Just kidding Maria.)

As soon as I entered her little extraction cell, she gave me that look. "Have you fasted?"

Oops! I failed the first test but I'll be back there tomorrow.

Next was the dentist, an even more frightening prospect for a former poor country boy whose earliest dentistry experiences were just pure pain.

However, I reminded myself that Dr Ian was unlike any other dentist in the entire world. He doesn't hurt his patients - not even with the anaesthetic injection.

Dr Ian laid me back in the chair and then commenced to dress himself to look like a man from Mars. He strapped on a head piece that had two goggle type binoculars sticking out where his eyes used to be, just below what looked like a miner's lamp.

He headed straight for the back of my mouth while talking the way dentists do. And as I replied with a guttural gargle that he pretended to understand.

Almost excitedly he called to the nurse: "Ah it's the 1-8".

Dentists have their own language. Every tooth has a name and number. Apparently 1-8 was where my wisdom tooth had been some 30 years earlier. Dr Ian discovered that an earlier dentist had left a bit of my wisdom tooth behind and had covered up his sloppy work with a filling, which had fallen out.

Just like life really. If there's a bit of a problem, just cover it up and move on.

But Dr Ian is a professional and he's now referred me to a dental surgeon to have it all fixed.

Teeth are a mighty big problem for governments as well. Federal health department studies show that two-thirds of people over five years old have visited a dentist in the past year, and almost half of adults have had a regular dental checkup. Good for them.

But the studies also show that more than half of all six-year-olds have decay in their baby teeth and just under half have decay in their permanent teeth. It means a lifetime of costly, unpleasant visits to the dentist.

In earlier times, the dentist would appraise the teeth and more than likely pull them all out. Apparently one in five people over 65 have no natural teeth.

And the cost of all this is a real pain as well. Total expenditure on dental services in Australia, according to the latest available government figures, is around $9 billion a year and rising quickly. And the largest source of funds to pay for this is from individuals.

Just on 60 per cent of people pay directly for their dental costs and 40 per cent have some level of insurance. One in five Australians reported that dental bills created a large financial burden.

This is a massive cost on people and society. And especially when you think of the young kids, half of whom are headed for a lifetime of trouble.

We have got to start getting creative here. It's time for governments to do some practical things as well as talking wide-ranging tax changes.

Free dental care for all children would be a very positive step towards having a population with healthier and better teeth for the rest of their life. The cost would be great initially but the long-term benefits would be greater. Might get a lot of votes too.

Prevention should be a clear focus of the entire health system. What if these checks that I'm now having and which I can obviously afford, were easily available to everyone through tax incentives to not only take the tests, but reward people for annual health indicator improvements.

Ultimately it is a question of people taking responsibility for themselves. It's just that many seem to need a little more encouragement to do so.

It was a founding father of the US, Benjamin Franklin, who said "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Franklin was many things. An author, scientist, and politician.

We need more people in this modern world to take his words seriously.

The story Children's dental health should be free first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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