New Zealand's first and only purpose-built charity hospital is set to expand, for the third time in its nine year history.
From next week Canterbury patients who require complex dental care to treat wisdom teeth, fix root canals, carry out full extractions and address serious gum problems, will be able to seek help at Christchurch's Charity Hospital.
Three oral surgeons and a team of assistants will be the first to offer their time for free to staff and run the new $550,000 unit.
It will initially offer appointments and treatments three days per week, assisting around 600-800 patients in the coming year.
"The idea is that we will see them here and try to get them dentally fit for the next two years" says Charity Hospital manager Carl Shaw.
The new unit builds on and expands the hospital’s original dental suite, opened four years ago, which offers more basic dental care to WINZ clients.
The idea for the new oral surgery unit came after an approach to the hospital by the local branch of the NZ Dental Association. Local dentists saw the need for patients in need to receive more advanced free care.
Currently patients can access a yearly WINZ grant of $300 to pay for emergency dental treatment from a community dentist.
"This might pay for a good examination and clean and maybe a filling" says Christchurch dentist Dr Keith Chiang.
However he says "there are people who have much more work needed than that. They have lots of gum problems, they have multiple cavities and also gaps. Due to these gaps people have stopped smiling" he says.
Charity Hospital Founder Dr Phil Bagshaw agrees the current $300 WINZ grant is insufficient.
"A return to good dental health cost more than $300" he says.
"What happens now is that patients go along, they get their so-called grant, the local dentist sees them, says oh yes I’ll start the work, but then of course neither the patient nor the dentist can afford to finish it" he says.
WINZ clients can apply for an interest-free loan to cover more substantial oral treatment but Bagshaw says many struggle to pay it off.
He says the hospitals’ expansion into free oral surgery is a clear signal of unmet health need in the Canterbury community and that the government needs to step up and fund more care.
However in a statement, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman told 1News "there has always been prioritisation of patients and some who do not receive treatment.
The only answer to increased demand is to do more and that’s what we are continuing to do" he says, pointing to figures which show that over 55,000 Canterbury patients received a first specialist assessment in the last financial year compared to 42,000 the previous year.
He says elective surgery rates in Canterbury lifted 61% during that same time period.
However Dr Bagshaw maintains it’s still not sufficient.
"We are expanding treatment and funding less than our population is ageing and growing and so we are going backwards. To say we are doing more is one thing; to say you’re doing enough is a completely different thing" he says.
It’s the third expansion for the Christchurch Charity Hospital.
The first building, purchased in suburban Harewood in 2007, houses a full operating suite, recovery suit and consulting rooms.
The Canterbury earthquakes four years later exposed a need for free counselling which led to the hospital’s charitable trust to fundraise and buy the property next door and convert it into a counselling unit, with a dental suite attached.
The latest and third unit is housed in another newly-purchased property situated alongside the original two.
The new oral surgery unit doubles the hospital’s dental treatment offering to two suites, is kitted out with state of the art equipment and x-ray facilities as well as a separate space for the making and altering of dentures.
The charity hospital’s new unit, which also contains a community meeting facility and offices for the Road Traffic Trauma Trust, treats its first oral surgery patients next week.