Oral health is an important determinant of health-related quality of life of the elderly.
However, it is being overlooked or even neglected by current health policies.
As a result, it is particularly difficult for the elderly to access oral health care services, public or private.
The availability and scope of existing public dental services are very limited. The Department of Health only provides emergency dental services covering pain relief and teeth extraction through 11 dental clinics with fixed service hours and a quota.
The fees and charges of private dentists are rather costly. Many old people are therefore, for financial reasons, unable to arrange for an annual dental check-up and only go to a private dentist when the level of discomfort has become unbearable. This definitely impedes their physical health and social life.
In order to promote oral health for elderly citizens, the government should improve and extend the scope of public dental services, and introduce more initiatives to enhance oral health.
The Department of Health should provide at least one public dental outpatient clinic in each district, and extend and expand the clinics’ service hours and quota.
In addition, the scope of public dental outpatient services must also be extended to cover comprehensive dental treatment for the elderly, such as dental examination, scaling, extraction, filling, endodontic treatment and crowning.
For those old people who are not in a care home, who are not recipients of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance or the Community Care Fund and who are experiencing financial hardship, the high cost of treatment deters them from visiting a private dentist.
The health care voucher system will not cover expensive private dental services.
The government should, in line with the concept of “money follows patients”, introduce a dental care voucher or a “co-payment system” that would not only sponsor disadvantaged elderly people for oral health care, but also promote the proper use of oral health care services.
The government should shoulder the responsibility for enhancing oral health among the elderly in Hong Kong. Elderly health care programmes must not be confined to treatment of diseases, but must be appropriately designed to help older people achieve better oral health which, in turn, improves their health-related quality of life.