Support grows for standalone oral hygienist council to cut dental costs

Could a new regulatory body pave the way for simple dental care to be conducted more affordably?

Former Health Minister Dame Annette King says dental hygienists and oral therapists should fight for their own standalone council, having worked under the supervision and control of the Dental Council for too long. 

Operating as a separate entity, dental hygienists and oral therapists could provide simple dental care to New Zealanders which could increase the availability of dental services and lower the price for those who can't afford it. 


Speaking to the combined New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association (NZDOHTA) and New Zealand Dental Hygienists Association (NZDHA) in Christchurch, Ms King said nurses or midwives, or occupational therapists or pharmacists wouldn't tolerate being treated the way dental hygienists and oral therapists have. 

Arish Naresh, Chairman of the New Zealand Dental & Oral Health Association, told The AM Show on Wednesday that having a standalone council for dental hygienists and oral therapists is a good idea that needs to be explored. He said the strategy has worked in places like Alaska and Canada, and should be explored for New Zealand. 

"We know from research that many New Zealanders are not visiting the dentist because of the high cost and also because of access issues. There has been a study that shows that most dentists are based in affluent regions," he said. 

Former Health Minister Dame Annette King and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former Health Minister Dame Annette King and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo credit: Getty

Ms King, who was Minister of Health from 1999 to 2005 under Helen Clark's Government, says dental hygienists and oral therapists could "set the competencies and set their scope of practice" if they become their own registered profession. 

This could include an oral health approach to older New Zealanders, she said, considering baby boomers are retiring with heavily filled teeth, unlike their parents who had had dentures. 

Mr Naresh says dentistry is the largest of the dental health professions covered by the Dental Council, and while there has been progress for supporting professions, delays are common. For example, he said the new oral health therapy qualification that's been around since 2008 didn't come to fruition until 2017 because of dentist resistance. 

"We are not saying that dental hygienists are the only answer to the increasing cost of dental care. What we are saying is that we need to work as a team so that everyone's working top of scope," he told The AM Show. 

"In this case, dental and oral health therapists will provide the basic prevention-based oral health care, and then when it comes to root canal people can be referred to the dentals."

Ms King says the demand for affordable dental care exceeds the current ability to provide for New Zealanders, and that it's time for change.