Where the needs are

Dr Peter Waltham wants to promote dental volunteerism as something achievable yet meaningful

By Danny Chan

Heartened by the heroism of firefighters on the frontline of devastating bushfires, you would no doubt have reserved special praise for the volunteers, who responded to the crisis completely of their own volition.

The same selfless quality is reflected in dentists and dental auxiliaries who regularly give of their time, energy and finances to help improve the dental health of fellow Australians with limited or no dental care access. However, instead of elusive figures, it is far more instructive to see volunteers as everyday individuals with whom we can readily identify – and easily emulate.

That encapsulates Dr Peter Waltham’s measured call for new volunteers. According to the Director of Victorian branch of the Australian Dental Health Foundation, dental volunteerism simply boils down to going where the needs are, although he stresses that there are many.

Despite his esteemed designation, Dr Peter Waltham is at heart a dental volunteer. Peter got his first taste of dental volunteerism though the AustraliaVietnam Dental Health project in 2009. On his return from Vietnam, he searched for similar programs within local communities that led to involvement with the ADHF. Approached during his first year at the foundation to take on the role of Victorian state chair, he was initially hesitant due to inexperience and the amount of administrative duties involved.

Before saying “yes”, Dr Waltham had one pre-condition: “My appointment has to make a significant and positive contribution to the foundation.”

The Melbourne dentist made good on his assertion by rallying fellow compatriots to join as ADHF volunteers, at a time there were few. The Victorian branch experienced a steady rise in volunteer numbers over the last decade, spurring Dr Waltham on to bigger goals in the new one.

As part of ADHF’s broad agenda to coordinate the delivery of pro bono basic dental treatment to socially disadvantaged members of the community, Peter has been working hard to champion the Foundation’s Volunteer Programs:

  • Dental rescue days “Dentist/s and their staff provide dental care to a group of patients within their own practice for a full or half day. Patients are referred by local charities and not-for-profit organizations.”
  • Adopt a Patient “One patient in need of more complex dental care is paired with a volunteer dentist and the practice ‘adopts’ the patient over a few appointments to complete a course of pro bono treatment. If lab services are required, the ADHF has the support of Southern Cross Dental for items such as crowns, bridgework, dentures, splints and retainers.”
  • Rebuilding Smiles® “This program focuses on the provision of dental services to people who have experienced domestic and family violence and who are referred by domestic violence support agencies.” Asked for some of the most pressing needs within ADHF (Vic) at the moment, Dr Waltham signals a lack of comprehensive treatment including restorations, endodontic treatment, extractions and dentures. Of particular urgency is a need for assistance in the area of dentures and partial dentures.

“The Foundation enjoys some support from dental labs and prosthetists around Australia, however we have identified a gap in Victoria and we would welcome any support that can be provided to assist our clients, whether as a one-off or on a more regular basis,” he adds.

Illustrating the plight of underprivileged Australians, Peter relates the account of an ADHF patient who was referred to a volunteer practice, where he received free consultation along with multiple extractions.

Although entitled to priority access to the public system in Victoria, it would have taken months to get a general consultation at his local clinic and a much longer waiting time for dentures. Partially cared for, the edentulous patient still has great difficulty eating due to a lack of pro bono denture services.

“There are numerous ADHF (Vic) patients, such as this gentleman, in and around Melbourne who require dentures and we are facing significant delays in providing opportunities for them to get this assistance.”

After 10 years participating in dental volunteerism, in both leadership and clinical capacity, Peter hasn’t lost sight of the simple need-based calling, the same one he extends to fellow dental colleagues. Once again, demystifying volunteerism as an arduous undertaking, he encourages:

“It takes very little of your time to engage with volunteering, and it can make a huge difference to underprivileged people. Volunteering also gives back to the dentist and the whole dental team in a way that I can only describe as a “feel good” thing, to know that you are helping fellow Australians in need.”

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