Sara Hurley, the chief dental officer for England, and Steve Powis, medical director for NHS England visited the region on Thursday 21 February to learn about some of the innovative dental projects we’ve been running that have been improving the oral health of some of our more vulnerable residents.
Understandably homeless people often struggle to get access to dental care, a situation exacerbated by the fact that some of them are anxious about receiving any kind of health care.
It’s vital that we address this – alcohol, tobacco and substance misuse are more common among homeless people than the general population and all have a detrimental effect on oral health. Tooth-ache can cause serious pain and is known to have been a factor in many drug relapses and caused some to drink more alcohol.
Homeless people are also more prone to oral lesions, it’s really important they deal with these as they may be signs of more serious problems, such as mouth cancer.
So how can we help people who often have chaotic lifestyles? It’s obvious when you think about it, we need to go to them, we need to be informal and we need to be able to adapt to their needs.
Manchester dentist, Ben Atkins has been leading the project to deliver dental services to homeless and hard to reach patients.
Initially the service developed and linked with an existing medical practice’s methadone drop in sessions. The medical practice directed patients through to the dental service and due to the fact that the practice operated a drop in service, patients in need of treatment were able to access services immediately.
The service has since grown and ‘pop-up’ clinics are now happening in other places used by homeless people. The nurse led ‘pop-ups’ provide information on how to access dental services and advice on oral hygiene. They also help dispel some of the myths about dentists and encourage people to attend practices for oral exams.
As well as making it easier for homeless people to see a dentist we’ve also been removing barriers that in the past have made it hard for dentists to treat them. This can be a challenge when dealing with people with chaotic lives and so more flexible methods of monitoring are now being used.
As well as our work with the homeless community we’ve also been highlighting efforts that are being made to improve the oral health of our under-fives.
Claire Stevens, consultant in paediatric dentistry, highlighted that more than a third of five-year-olds across Greater Manchester experience tooth decay – well above the England national average.
Education is the key to changing this. So we’ve introduced supervised tooth brushing in many schools and nurseries and we’re providing oral health training to health visitors to lead the way at nurseries, pre-schools and all early years settings.
Toothbrushes and toothpaste are being given away by health visitors to new mothers and we’re encouraging all families to take their children to the dentist before they turn one.
If we’re honest about the situation in Greater Manchester, oral hygiene needs to continue to improve, especially among the under-fives. However, I’m certain that with determination and new innovative ways of thinking and working we can put a smile on everyone’s face.