As any health expert will attest, oral health is not just about looking good and being able to chew.

Poor oral health has been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, poor nutrition, diabetes and even dementia, yet people living in rural Australia are more likely to visit their doctor for antibiotics and pain relief for a dental problem than they are to seek out quality dental services.

A recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) reported that rural GPs observe poor oral health in their communities but are ill prepared to treat issues like toothache, abscesses and dental trauma.

Financial concerns are at the top of the list of factors preventing people from seeing a dentist, with many people unable to meet the cost of treatment.

School of Dentistry and Oral Health Dean and Head of School, Professor Robert Love says this has been a problem for as long as he can remember but there are a growing number of free services provided by Queensland Health in rural areas.

“Griffith University partners with free State Government dental clinics in several areas including Warwick, Tweed Heads and Southport,” Professor Love explains.

“In Warwick we have six dental chairs and 12 students, in Southport we have eight students, and in Tweed Heads we have 10 students working in Government clinics, all capable of providing the full range of dental treatments at no cost.

“We have just signed a deal with Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service to open a brand new facility in Kingaroy to provide dental services to patients who would otherwise go untreated.”

Students who complete rural or remote training are more likely to return to the areas and communities where they are most needed after graduation.

“We’re committed to sending our students to rural areas for a semester in their final year of dentistry for this reason and also because they are more likely to experience a wider range of oral health issues than they would at a metropolitan clinic,” says Professor Love.

Dentistry students have also worked in areas including Canberra, Tasmania and Ballina.

The rural oral health education program is expanding but establishing more free clinics relies heavily on central funding to build and equip the appropriate facilities, says Professor Love.

“I’ve been contacted recently by an Indigenous health group further north in Queensland and we would love to help them too,” he adds.

The Cherbourg dental clinic is another example of how Griffith students are bringing a smile to rural communities. The Hope4Health initiative is run entirely by students and volunteers in their final years of dentistry.

The clinic provides treatment free of charge to the largely Indigenous community located west of Gympie and an hour’s drive from the nearest town dentist.