Hong Kong health authorities must bite the bullet and put more money into elderly dental care
- As the city’s population ages, its existing public dental programmes are inadequate to meet the needs of elderly residents
As a Chinese saying goes: “Having a toothache can be more painful than a serious disease”. When my uncle was in his late 70s, he had lost all his teeth and had dentures. But as he aged, his gums began shrinking and the dentures didn’t fit his jaw any more. He felt pain when eating. We encouraged him to get new dentures, which cost around HK$15,000, but he was sceptical. He said he was about to die so it was not “economical” to do so. So until his death he suffered quietly from the dreadful pain every day.
How can our elderly stay healthy if they can’t even eat in comfort?
I know there is an Elderly Dental Assistance Programme subsidised by the Community Care Fund and an Outreach Dental Care Programme for the Elderly set up by NGOs with government subsidies. I also know there is an HK$2,000 Elderly Health Care Vouchers scheme for the elders to pay for dental and other services. But all these are far from enough.
For example, the Elderly Dental Assistance Programme was started in September 2012. It has served 13,500 elders as of February 2017. That is about 2,700 people per year. The Outreach Dental Care Programme is better: between October 2014 and March 2017, 68,300 elders received dental services under that scheme. That is around 22,000 people per year. But Hong Kong has around 800,000 people over the age of 70. These services are like a drop in the ocean.
Most government clinics only serve public servants and their dependants. There are only 11 government clinics open to the public, with limited opening hours and quotas. That is why some elderly people queue up outside clinics at 5am to try and get a place.
The government’s excuse is always that there are not enough dentists. But have they put in enough resources? Is the capacity of our dentists being maximised? Can they recruit and concentrate more dentists in elderly dental centres to enhance their efficiency?
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It is right for the government to increase the number of publicly-funded degree places in dentistry. While the number has increased from 53 in 2016-2017 to 73 in 2018-19, it is far from enough. In the long term, the government should consider setting up another faculty of dentistry, as currently only the University of Hong Kong has one.
Legislator Leung Yiu-chung suggests earmarking HK$15 billion to improve public dental services. My request is more humble. HK$5 billion would be good for a start. The HK$6,000 giveaway in the 2011-12 budget cost HK$37 billion, handing out cash to many people who didn’t really need it.
Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to spend money on elderly dental service schemes? We should exhaust every method to improve the everyday quality of life of the elderly.
Patrick Mak, To Kwa Wan