ALTHOUGH THE importance of dental hygiene may have been drummed into everyone from a young age, people are often hesitant to book a dental appointment. The thought of having their mouths turned into construction sites or the sheer discomfort of regular check-ups keeps them away from dentists. But such hesitation can have dire long-term consequences, resulting in painful cavities and multiple fillings, turning what could have been set right in two 20-minute sessions each year into a procedure that needs a far more painful operation. Despite knowing what is good for them, few people actually heed the warning. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where people's understanding of dental care remains one of the lowest in the world. 'Hong Kong people's dental awareness and oral hygiene are far behind international standards,' said Vincent Leung, president of the Hong Kong Dental Association. 'Most people do not see a dentist regularly and only see one when they have a problem,' Dr Leung said. In most cases, dental care has been ignored so much that it has become an afterthought. Dr Leung said people did not seem to care much about their teeth and would rather spend their money on cosmetics, facials and massages. The low demand for dental care has resulted in a relatively small population of about 1,800 dentists in the city. This translates into one dentist for every 4,000 people, as opposed to one in 2,000 in Europe, according to Lakshman Samaranayake, dean of the Hong Kong University's faculty of dentistry, the only dental school in the city. But he said the lower dentist-to-patient ratio was sustainable for the time being given that most people were not yet in the habit of going for general check-ups. Despite the present situation, the industry is optimistic that the government and the Hong Kong Dental Association will raise the level of dental care awareness through advertising campaigns and related activities. 'Things will change eventually as people become more affluent. The importance of oral health and dental cleanliness will improve,' Professor Samaranayake said. Work opportunities for dentists can only get better. They are, by any standards, considered excellent already, with 100 per cent of those graduating from a five-year dental surgery degree getting jobs. But many prefer to set up even more lucrative private practices. 'Even at the Prince Philip Dental Hospital they have difficulty recruiting staff because so many more graduates opt for private practice,' Professor Samaranayake said. Those going into private practice have a choice of either starting their own clinics or joining larger dental practices to work with experienced dentists who already have an established practice and a steady group of patients on their books. Considering that Hong Kong has been churning out dentists locally for just over two decades, dental education has evolved remarkably. Before Hong Kong University's dental school was set up in 1982, dentists had to be trained overseas, largely in the US and Britain. Besides offering a degree in dental surgery, the university's faculty of dentistry also runs a range of special postgraduate training programmes. These include orthodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, periodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, children's dentistry and family dentistry, among others. The most sought-after postgraduate course is orthodontics, which is considered to be one of the most lucrative areas of dentistry. Dentists also have a better quality of life compared to other medical professionals, as they do not have to put up with emergency calls and overnight shifts. They usually work during the day and have normal working hours. However, one of the major challenges dentists will have to face is keeping pace with rapidly evolving technologies. 'Once dentists come out of the dental school, it is difficult for them to keep up with the latest technologies unless they consciously enrol in continuing education courses,' Professor Samaranayake said. 'With patients now having a greater awareness of what is out there and available to them in terms of dental treatments, dentists need to make sure they retrain and review their practices regularly to keep up with modern trends,' he said.