It’s time to start talking

Dental professionals, health specialists and politicians will gather at Stormont later this autumn for a summit designed to be a “watershed” moment in oral health policy in Northern Ireland. Delegates will hear from Simon Reid, Chief Dental Officer, Michael Donaldson, head of dental services at the Health and Social Care Board, Gerry McKenna, adjunct professor at the College of Medicine and Health, University College Cork, Caroline Lappin, chair of the BDA’s Northern Ireland Council, and Roz McMullan, the BDA’s national president.

The summit, says Tristen Kelso, the British Dental Association’s Northern Ireland Director, is designed not just to highlight the work needed to be done, but also to  start to come up with a new, more ambitious and positive vision for oral health in Northern Ireland – in collaboration with a range of key stakeholders.

Northern Ireland faces incredible challenges when it comes to oral health and tackling these challenges requires vision, ambition and investment, he argues, from both Stormont and Westminster. Oral health, and especially children’s oral health, needs to be a stated priority of the Department of
Health, and resourced accordingly. The Department of Health’s 2007 Oral Health Strategy needs to be evaluated, updated and underpinned by the latest evidence. 

There needs to be a commitment towards a new comprehensive oral health strategy with considerably improved oral health outcomes for key sections of the population, including children, to be included within any future Programme for Government. It is the start of a journey, and frank debate is key. The Republic of Ireland, however, is at a different stage; earlier this year, the Government launched Smile agus Sláinte.

The policy is wide-ranging and takes an “intersectoral approach” as well as being consistent with the primary care philosophy of prevention, treatment at the lowest level of complexity and recourse to specialist care where clinically appropriate. It is, a Department of Health official said, the “culmination of a comprehensive programme of research, analysis and consultation over a number of years and, over time, we will update models of care and service delivery that have been with us for 25 years or more”.

Which makes the recent stance of the Irish Dental Association (IDA) difficult to understand. Fintan Hourihan, its chief executive, complained: “The association was not invited to participate and nor was it consulted in a manner any way consistent with the terms of the agreed information and consultation agreement for the HSE [Health Service Executive] and its staff in preparation of the new oral health policy. We only saw its contents for the first time on the date of its publication.” It is a view that has flummoxed Dr Dympna Kavanagh, Ireland’s Chief Dental Officer (CDO). “We had briefings and engagements with the association,” she said.

When Ireland’s Dental magazine put a series of questions to the chief executive seeking to clarify its position, an official said he would only be commenting to the IDA’s journal. A close inspection of its summer edition shed no light on the contradictory standpoints. Trawling through its archives revealed a photograph and accompanying story describing the IDA’s involvement in a stakeholder event used to inform the policy. Politicians are at a loss over how the IDA and the Department of Health could hold such diverging views of the consultation process. They have called on the organisations to “re-establish” their relationship.

It is, indeed, time to start talking.

Will Peakin is Editor of Ireland’s Dental magazine. Follow Ireland’s Dental on Twitter @IrelandsDental and Facebook.

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Published: 9 September, 2019 at 07:24
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