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Denture wait not a lot to smile about (The Straits Times, 26 November 2011, Pg B06)

26 Nov 2011

 
By: MELISSA PANG

WHEN retiree Goh Cher Choh decided to get dentures in February this year, he got a referral letter for a consultation at the National Dental Centre (NDC).

He was given an appointment to see a dentist in July. But it was only yesterday – nine months after he made the appointment – that he finally got to see the dentist.

“I received a letter from the centre informing me that the appointment would be postponed, but I didn’t ask why,” said Mr Goh, 65, of the earlier date. “It’s normal to have to wait so long. The system is like that.”

Subsidised patients like him are resigned to long waits to get dental care in the public sector, which is why a recent announcement by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong that Singapore will be increasing its intake of dentists is seen as timely.

At NDC, which shoulders about 60 per cent of the patient load at public dental clinics here, long waiting times are the norm for high demand subsidised services.

It takes about 10 months on average to get root canal treatments, seven months for dentures, and five months for crowns and bridges.

At the first consultation at the NDC, which usually happens within a month after the patient gets a referral letter from the polyclinic, he will be assessed.

The dentist will sort out any pain or infections at that visit. If it is not an urgent case, the patient will be informed of the estimated waiting time for the actual procedure, and can choose whether or not he wants to wait.

The dental care centre in Outram sees more than 160,000 visits a year. An NDC spokesman said that compared to three years ago, waiting times have in fact come down in general.

She said the wait is long given the high demand for services such as dentures, crowns and root canal treatments, and the limited number of specialists. How long one waits also depends on the availability of specialists for these services, and seasonal demand. Fewer patients are seen during the Chinese New Year period, for example.

But she added that the health of patients is not compromised.

Waits for services like oral surgery, which includes procedures like wisdom tooth extraction and jaw surgery, and gum treatments, are often much shorter because of a more balanced demand and supply match.

Retiree Abu Bakar Mamat, 66, for example, saw a dentist at the NDC for a tooth extraction about three days after getting a referral from a polyclinic. After the first visit, he returned to the centre every other month for follow-up checks.

NDC is the main centre for subsidised dental care in Singapore and handles patients who require more complicated treatments.

Other public dental clinics are sited at the National University Hospital (NUH), Alexandra Hospital (AH), Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Changi General Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

Emergency dental treatment is also available at all polyclinics, plus Singapore General Hospital, NUH and AH.

Singaporeans and permanent residents referred to the NDC by polyclinics or from other public health clinics such as in schools, are entitled to subsidised care.

A Ministry of Health (MOH) spokesman said waiting times for subsidised dental care are generally around three to four months, depending on the type of procedure. Waiting times for complex procedures like root canal treatment, crowns and dentures will typically be longer.

Earlier this month, Minister Gan announced that the number of local- and foreign-trained dentists will be increased to meet the demands of an ageing population.

The intake of dental students will rise from 48 a year to about 80 by 2020, and more specialities will be recognised by the Singapore Dental Council.

There are currently 1,630 registered dentists, up from 1,086 in 2001. About 70 per cent work in the private sector, leaving just 20 per cent in the public sector. The remaining 10 per cent are not in active practice.

The Primary Care Partnership Scheme (PCPS), which allows patients to receive dental care at private clinics at subsidised rates, has alleviated the burden on the public sector. As of the end of last year, about 20 per cent – or 170 – of all dental clinics have signed up for the scheme.

PCPS patients made about 14,400 visits to participating dentists last year, resulting in $900,000 worth of subsidies being given out.

But some patients like Mr Goh do not mind the long wait. The retiree said he would continue to visit the NDC as he is impressed by the good care he receives there.

“I like coming here. The doctors are patient and do a thorough job,” he said. “Singaporeans fuss about everything. But if you want subsidies, want it to be fast, and want it to be cheaper, you have to be patient.”

Email: melpang@sph.com.sg

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Last Modified Date :26 Sep 2013