18th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong’s public dental service system is under significant strain, as many had to endure a gruelling 10-hour wait just to register for tooth extraction at a government dental clinic, exemplifies the hardships many face due to the inadequate service provision in the region. This situation demands immediate attention and reform from the Hong Kong government to ensure timely and efficient dental care for its ageing population.

The public dental service in Hong Kong, particularly in densely populated areas such as Tsuen Wan, is struggling to meet demand. With clinics operating under restrictive policies like “one tooth per visit,” patients find themselves forced into repeated, lengthy visits for basic dental care. The situation is exacerbated by limited clinic operating days and a quota system that does not match the high demand, leaving many in pain and frustration.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further strained an already stretched system. Staff shortages have become more pronounced, with the number of dental appointments across the city’s 11 public clinics plummeting by about 50 percent over recent years. The government attributes these challenges to the pandemic and staffing levels not yet returning to pre-pandemic norms. However, this explanation offers little solace to those in need of immediate dental care.

In response to growing criticism, the Hong Kong Department of Health has initiated some reforms, such as adjusting registration times to earlier in the evening to alleviate long overnight waits. Moreover, a new digital ticketing system is set to launch, aimed at improving the registration process, particularly for the elderly who are less capable of enduring physical queues.

However, as Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau suggested, achieving a utopian scenario where medical services, including dental, are immediately accessible remains a challenging ideal. This acknowledgment, while realistic, does not absolve the government of its responsibility to significantly improve the current system.

To address these challenges comprehensively, Hong Kong needs to adopt a multi-faceted strategy. First, increasing the capacity of existing clinics and opening new ones in underserved areas would help alleviate the pressure on the current facilities. Additionally, expanding the scope of services each clinic offers per visit could reduce the number of visits required for complete treatment.

The government is also exploring ways to integrate non-local dentists and has plans to subsidise elderly residents visiting dentists across the border. These measures, while beneficial, must be part of a broader, more systemic reform that includes enhancing local training for dental professionals and expanding outreach services through NGOs.

Long-term, the government must focus on preventive dental care and education to reduce the overall need for emergency dental services. Expanding educational programs about dental hygiene and care, particularly targeted at the elderly, could decrease the frequency of dental emergencies among this demographic.

Furthermore, the introduction of more supportive policies, such as increasing the coverage and amount of healthcare vouchers for the elderly, could provide more immediate relief and flexibility, enabling them to seek timely treatment without prohibitive costs.

The situation at Hong Kong’s public dental clinics is a clear call to action. The elderly, who endure long hours and multiple visits for basic dental care, deserve better. It is imperative for the Hong Kong government to implement comprehensive reforms that not only address the immediate inefficiencies but also pave the way for a more robust and preventive dental care system. Only through such sustained efforts can we hope to see an end to the distressing scenes of elderly residents waiting overnight for dental care.