Elderly forced to queue at 2am for dental care, concern group claims

Lack of public services and high cost of going to a private practice leave many lining up at government clinics for emergency treatment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 5:52am

It's a long and painful wait and they don't get much sleep, but elderly people still queue up in the early hours of the morning at one of the few government dental clinics in the city.

They know there is only a small chance they will be able to receive emergency treatment.

But their numbers are significant, said Au Woon-chun, 73, speaking for the Respect Elderly Rights Concern Group.

"Some of us will queue up at 5am for [one of the limited consultation chips], but even that is too late. Sometimes we get up as early as 2am," Au said.

"Many of us elderly can't afford the high [private dental] fees, but there are basically no public services either."

People of all ages compete for limited spaces at 11 government clinics - including just one on Hong Kong Island and two serving the whole of Kowloon - that provide some dental services.

These are open to the public one or two mornings or afternoons per week for emergency treatment and pain medication only. The rest of the time the clinics attend only to civil servants.

This causes big problems for the elderly, who are in great need of proper dental services, Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Tang Ka-piu said.

A citywide survey of more than 1,400 elderly residents found 80 per cent had at least one dental problem and 70 per cent needed to get false teeth, the concern group found.

Two-thirds either had to give up certain foods or eat less because of the deterioration in the condition of their teeth.

But only half of them would visit a dentist, mainly because it was too expensive, while more than 80 per cent felt public dental services were grossly inadequate.

And the problem will worsen with an ageing population, Tang said. "The government needs to face this problem.

"It's not even a proper check-up [at the government dental clinics] - you just go in and get the bad tooth taken out. If there are two, they pick the worse one and ask you to queue up again next day to take the second one out."

Au suggested setting up at least one government-subsidised dental clinic for the elderly in each district, where they could get check-ups, have dentures fixed and teeth filled.

She also called for a dental care voucher to be given to residents aged over 60 or 65 who were not on welfare, as those on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance already receive dental grants. "It's us who don't take money from the government who are suffering now," she said.

"Toothaches are terrible - you can't sleep or eat and every day is painful. And when you get older, your teeth have more problems."