Royal Flying Doctor Service dental assistant Taneesha Torlach

By St.LukesHealth CEO Paul Lupo

Tasmanians generally consider themselves to be in good health but when you look at the statistics, it tells a different story.

ABS data shows that compared with the rest of Australia, Tasmania has higher rates of chronic disease like arthritis, asthma, heart disease and mental issues.

It is a sobering reality check and leaves little wonder why our health system is under so much stress and why the need for private health insurance is so strong.

At St.LukesHealth we believe it’s necessary to balance the immediate requirements for treating disease with a longer-term sustainable solution of preventing it, and its pleasing to see great work is being undertaken by another not-for-profit organisation in Tasmania, the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

While the RFDS is known for its aeromedical service in transferring patients from remote places to hospital, its footprint on the ground in Tasmanian communities is quite large.

The RFDS runs a Primary Healthcare program in Tasmania aimed at improving both the mental and physical health outcomes of those living with chronic health conditions. The service is delivered in remote and rural communities with a holistic approach to a person’s well-being.

In a recent conversation with John Kirwan, CEO of the Tasmanian RFDS, he mentioned that there was a significant correlation between physical health and mental health.

“An example would be a middle-age woman with depression who is taking medication, but this medication causes her to put on weight, causing her to lose more self-confidence. Often our mental and physical health workers will work with the client at the same time to achieve the best possible result,” Mr Kirwan said.

“We are focusing on hospital avoidance.”

The service also runs a dental program that visits schools and community health centres allowing those who cannot visit regional centres with the opportunity to receive treatment.

The demand has been significant, with the RFDS’ two dental teams delivering more than 1500 treatments to 1200 patients on the North-West Coast in the past 18 months.

“A lot of it is access, they will have a visiting service but for a lot of people it is about money. Getting to a dental clinic is hard if both parents are working or if there are transport issues,” Mr Kirwan said.

Dental disease is one of the largest preventable hospitalisations in Tasmania with the biggest cohort being young women and children. It is one reason why St.LukesHealth places so much emphasis on its Gap Free Preventative Dental offer to its members.

Mr Kirwan said dental disease should not result in hospitalisations because it is almost 100 per cent preventable and if people were in hospital as a result, then they were taking up valuable room for other patients with non-preventable conditions.

“Our focus in the (dental) program is on prevention and promotion and educating kids about looking after their teeth. If we can do that it stops some of the longer-term problems,” Mr Kirwan said.

While primary care is not often seen as an exciting area of medicine, the focus needs to shift from treating disease to preventing it.

Our focus must move towards prevention if we are to achieve better health outcomes for Tasmanians.