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Research sheds light on migrant mothers’ experience of dental services in Melbourne

Research News
Saturday, March 7, 2015 - 8:45am
Migrants, particularly those from refugee backgrounds, often arrive in Australia with poor oral health. Evidence also shows that children can rapidly develop tooth decay in their preschool years causing not only dental pain but also more general growth and development problems.

Despite the evidence of poor oral health, migrant women and their families face significant barriers when accessing dental services.

As part of her PhD research, Dr Elisha Riggs worked with bicultural workers to talk to mothers from Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan about their experiences of using local dental services for their children. 

The study found that despite an understanding that visiting the dentist is important for promoting oral health, the first contact with dental services was typically for emergency care. Accessibility, cost and being placed on waiting lists were identified as significant barriers to attendance.

The study also found, that when women did access dental services, it was for treatment rather than for preventive purposes. Few participants could comment on their child’s dental experience as their children had rarely visited a dentist, and if they did it was usually for emergency dental care.

Multiple risk factors affect the health of migrants, which are related to the stressors of migration and settlement, as well as changes to everyday life such as diet and traditional oral hygiene practices.

Refugees, particularly those who may have experienced torture, may find dental treatment highly stressful because of its invasive nature and associations with past traumatic experience.

Since completion of the study, the State Government of Victoria has implemented a new policy to provide priority access to public dental services for refugees and asylum seekers. The policy is designed to identify refugees and asylum seekers as a ‘priority group’ which means giving them the next available appointment with a dentists. Dental care is also provided free. These changes span across all public dental services across the state.

Policies such as this, aim to provide services which address issues about access and equity may help reduce oral health inequalities experienced by migrants. Given the barriers refugees and migrants have in accessing services, community engagement strategies are needed to support and encourage use of dental services.

With the continual intake of refugees and migrants into Australia, implementation of such policies together with health care provider training and appropriate community engagement strategies are needed. Without these the need for dental treatment will place increased demand on limited resources.

Read the full research paper here.

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