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Rural Health West has been working closely with The University of Western Australia to develop placements aimed at increasing the profile of rural practice for the future dental workforce.

The dental placement program came to fruition after years of difficulty in recruiting dentists into rural locations, despite strong demand from employing practices. Dental graduates had little exposure to rural practice during their studies, with the only rural placement available at the time existing in Bunbury, a large regional city.

The very remote communities in rural Western Australia were not being represented, with concern about the lack of dental care available in those communities only growing.

After years of planning and collaboration, dental students in Western Australia now have more opportunity to complete clinical placements in rural and remote locations as part of their studies. The isolated town of Derby was the first location to benefit from this project, with dental students Hayden and Wendy joining Dr Tracey Gold, clinical supervisor, in the dental practice at Derby Aboriginal Health Service (DAHS) for a two week placement.

In one of WA’s most remote locations in the Kimberley region, the dental care required in Derby was mostly for emergency treatment. Hayden and Wendy got to experience this first-hand, and to understand the burden of disease in such remote locations. Wendy said the placement gave her a greater appreciation of the inequity of health services in the country. “Every patient we saw had so much work that needed to be done; and it wasn’t work that should be delayed, such as patients with acute pain for weeks and months. “It felt great to provide such a vital service; it was very rewarding. However, there needs to be better access to care, both emergency and preventive.”

Hayden said the placement had inspired him to return. “In the city, we wouldn’t be doing the type of work we were undertaking while in Derby.”

“We’ve done lots of oral surgery, extractions, fillings and witnessed the impact of people being unable to access the care they need. “In Perth, we would have nurses who would take care of sterilisation; however we had to do that ourselves, so we had a quick crash course in that. “We also learnt to problem solve when we encountered issues with equipment, as you can’t duck out to the nearest supplier.”

Dr Gold said it was so important for the students to see how dentistry works in a remote setting. “In Derby, there is no permanent dental care and people need to travel to Broome – about 2.5 hours away – to see a dentist. However, Broome also has a shortage of dentists and the waiting list for an emergency appointment can be up to six weeks. “So there is truly a dire need to increase the number of dentists choosing to practise rurally, and that needs to be nurtured and encouraged among aspiring dentists.”

Apart from the fantastic clinical experience the students had, Wendy also felt the placement was beneficial in other ways. “Dentistry in Perth can be quite isolating, but working in an allied health setting like DAHS, we were able to witness how intra-professional clinical communication and integration can lead to better overall health outcomes.” At the completion of their time in Derby, the trio travelled to Broome to visit the dental facilities at Broome Regional Aboriginal Medical Service and two private clinics.

With many employment opportunities available at Aboriginal health settings or private practices, Rural Health West feels this is a great way for dental students to experience the diverse work that can be done in remote settings, and help to fill the many rural shortages that exist.

Additional placements for dental students have also taken place in Roebourne and Newman in WA’s Pilbara region and Katanning in the Great Southern region. For further information, contact Rural Health West.

Acknowledgement of Country