Exercise Wisdom Tooth Boosts Oral Health in Far North

They came and, like knights in shining armour, boosted the oral health of almost 750 high-need Far North residents, before leaving again two weeks later.

In partnership with the Northland DHB oral health service, a team of New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) dental personnel and other associated health promotion personnel, provided a treatment and health promotion programme in October based at Kaitaia Hospital. 

The free service, run as a NZDF training exercise, known as Exercise Wisdom Tooth, was aimed at those who hold a community service card.  All community service card holders were referred by their GP, the Kaitaia Community Link and private dentists. Some of the patients came from as far away as Whangaroa, Pangaru , Okaihau, Te Kao and Te Hapua to take up the opportunity and during the two-week exercise, the team packed in 750 consultations and over 2000 treatments (including a clean and scale, fillings, x-rays and extractions).

An integral part of the exercise was a health promotion road show visiting eight schools in the Far North. Classroom learning about oral health and healthy lifestyles was combined with an army assault course team relay activity. 

Child, Youth, Maternal Oral & Public Health general manager Jeanette Wedding describes the visit as a “humbling experience” and considers it one of the major successes for the Northland DHB this year.

“It is clear that, for this group of the population, this has been a life-changing moment for them. To see people free from pain, corrective work done on their teeth, restored teeth that enabled some not to be ashamed of smiling or talking, the commitment from them to look after their teeth and to ensure their children would too was, as I said, humbling.  There will be many stories to tell but this population group is so grateful for this opportunity.

“This was an unforgettable experience for many of us and, I know, the Far North community.”

Ms Wedding points out that many other players were working alongside the NZDF and Northland DHB Oral Health team, including GP practices, Maori providers and the eight schools visited, to make the programme a success and an invitation was extended to the NZDF to return. “We saw how teamwork can happen if the passion is there to do something with positive outcomes for our people.”

Northland DHB was given a plaque by the NZDF to commemorate their visit and it will be placed at the front entrance of Kaitaia Hospital.

Exercise Wisdom Tooth is designed to increase NZDF service capabilities to provide dental treatment and health promotion activity while deployed on military exercises in the Pacific region. 

Major Suzanne Halligan says the NZDF works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide regular aid missions in the Western Pacific Region.

“Health-related services are provided, including dental services and, in recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on education, training and prevention.”

Oral health advisor Dr Neil Croucher says good dental health is important and contributes to better general health, raises self-esteem, and is associated with better educational outcomes and improved job prospects.

Service manager, oral health service Pip Zammit passes on a special thanks to all involved in this project, particularly Kelly Larkins and the oral health leadership team, the oral health promotion team, the oral health team in Kaitaia, Jacqui Westren and Neta Smith.

“It was a busy two weeks for all the team at Kaitaia hospital, thank you to you all for being there for us and our patients. You all embraced the project and the food and hospitality was fantastic.” 

Major Suzanne Halligan

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