By Danny Chan
It has been said that dental and medical mission trips are among the hardest to fill. That’s because the job of prying doctors away from their busy clinics and schedules, even for a few weeks at a time, sometimes appear more daunting than actually carrying out the charitable causes. It is therefore heartening to learn that there are dentists in our midst who not afraid of bucking this trend, even though they often do so at great personal and professional costs to themselves. It is further encouraging when you see these big-hearted individuals winning the support – and more importantly, sponsorship – of their dental industry peers.
Such was the case when Dr David Hancock, a long time supporter of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, spoke at the recent gathering of the Victorian Branch of Australian Dental Industry Association (ADIA). At this year’s annual luncheon, the RFDS stalwart held everyone’s undivided attention when he spoke at length about the various causes and programs backed by the iconic service that flies medical practitioners out to far-flung regions of Australia’s outback, supplying medical expertise to remote communities.
Dr Hancock’s main goal for speaking at the event was not so much to raise money, but more the awareness of the widespread shortages, how the RFDS programs actually tackle the problems and what dental companies can do to help, through monetary and other means of sponsorship.
Flying Dental Service
The program closest to Dr Hancock’s heart has to be TOOTH, an acronym that stands for The Outback Oral Treatment and Health. His involvement with the dental offshoot of RFDS began January 2013, when he and his wife, Jenny, volunteered their services to fill a staffing gap, along with Dr Barry Turner and Dr Grahame Simpson. That’s when he got to deal first hand with the harsh itinerant conditions of a TOOTH volunteer, coming to grips with logistical issues, among other things, that he could not have previously imagined.
“The part where you get to fly to all these remote places to do dental work week in and week out is quite interesting but the work itself can be unpredictable, especially when there’s a fair bit of no-show,” he says helplessly. In fact, all the hassle it takes flying out to these outback regions may come to naught when the local patients fail to keep their appointments, which Dr Hancock relates, isn’t uncommon amongst the indigenous communities.
The situation in other parts, served by a properly set up dental clinic, is a lot better. In Alice Springs, for example, where you would find a functional clinic housing about twelve surgeries and seven dentists, an indigenous driver would be despatched to ferry patients to and from the clinic – and making sure they keep their appointments.
“Still, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. On a typical day, you’d fly in to see some ten to twelve patients because it takes awhile, given that most of them arrive at the clinic in pain and you would need to be spending some time in there.” As can be imagined, the majority are emergency type cases, and the waiting list can be long. In places like Lightning Ridge, the waiting list stands at about 70 patients.
“It’s tough for a dentist to permanently service some of these areas, where a typical community is no larger than 300 people,” Dr Hancock says of the pragmatic costs involved. “The other thing is the harsh weather. It was about 53 degrees the weeks my wife and I were up there. Thankfully, the clinics were air-conditioned and that helped a lot.”
In some cases, the “clinic” would take the form of a truck that is internally partitioned and furnished like an actual surgery: X-ray room, waiting room, operatory and even a mini clean area complete with autoclave and sterilised instruments. The Northern Territory Health Department owns three of these behemoth trucks which are stationed in Alice Springs, while RFDS funds one truck located in Queensland that services ten outlying communities. The TOOTH program employs a dentist and dental therapist who live in Dubbo, and flies them into one of five remote communities daily on a rotational basis so that the clinic is operational once a week. Besides raising funds to purchase these “moving clinics” and equipping them, the TOOTH program also receives support from dental suppliers that sponsor dental consumables, filling materials and other preventative type products.
So far, the support from the dental profession and industry, as well as that of the general public, has been encouraging. In the two years since TOOTH had been taken on board by RFDS, the dental service has seen 3500 patients and set up 516 clinics. The initiative, started by The Gonski Foundation and Investec, has helped deliver critical dental services across some of Australia’s most isolated communities.
Drive and Distribute
This past June marked the 25th outing of the RFDS’ Outback Car Trek fund raising event. Since its inception in 1990, the annual car trekking event has raised some $21.5 million for The Doctor, allowing for the delivery of emergency care and allied health services to Australians that would otherwise be prevented from receiving essential medical treatment.
A diehard supporter and participant of the event, Dr Hancock raised $23,000 this year for his trek team, that became the event’s top fund-raising group with combined sponsorships of $ 301,000. The Trek saw about 100 souped-up, pre-1978 2WD vehicles travel across the outback regions, covering an incredible 6,000 kilometres.
Taking turns at the wheel, David and Jenny also seized the opportunity to visit the indigenous communities along the trek route, distributing toothbrushes and toothpastes and giving dental health talks, to show the children how to brush their teeth. Once again, thanks to the generosity of dental suppliers that sponsored the products, the Hancocks were able to make the journey twice as meaningful.
Giving back “feels really good”
Asked where the private practitioner of 42 years finds the time and energy to join and actively promote these causes, while still maintaining a bustling practice, the response you get is unassumingly bereft of words like “commitment” and “sacrifice”.
Yet it is exactly what you would expect to hear from someone who “gets” the old adage that “it is better to give than receive”. He enthuses: “We’ve had a very good life from dentistry and we’re great believers that you’ve got to put a bit back. The truth is, helping people makes you feel really good.”
It is the same way he felt after treating an aboriginal patient who was suffering from gum-level rotted teeth and severe abscesses. “In his condition, he must have been experiencing great pain for months. To see the relief on his face makes all the effort worth the while.”