Dental promises after watchdog bites

Were it not for the Health Board's reference to criticism in its latest report from the less-than-friendly Audit Office, few would have remembered that the government set up a task force towards the end of the pandemic to review local dental care.

The task force was announced at the end of 2022, as society prepared to say goodbye to all forms of pandemic-related social distancing.

Understandably, dental services have had to be significantly curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it is shocking to learn from this shocking audit report that health authorities have done nothing to restore reduced services to pre-pandemic levels and allow capacity to remain at 2018/19 levels half.

What else could it be if not shame?

The Health Bureau reminds the community that a working group has been established for about a year and a half to “comprehensively review dental care services provided or subsidized by the government.”

It also reminded members of the Legislative Council and the media that the “Dentist Registration (Amendment) Bill 2024” was submitted to the Legislative Council earlier this month.

It aims to overhaul the legal framework, create new pathways for admitting non-locally trained dentists to practice in Hong Kong, and provide opportunities for dental graduates to practice in dental settings in the public sector or non-governmental organizations.

What a coincidence that the introduction of the Bill into the Legislative Council coincides with the Government Auditor's investigation into local dental services.

The Audit Director deserves praise for making the government move faster. The latter should take the initiative to increase the number of places to allow more people to see public dentists, and should introduce a bill before the Audit Office launches an investigation.

The Health Bureau’s response seemed to summarize what was currently being done, but one important element was missing: a timetable for delivering on the promise.

When will the first batch of overseas dentists be allowed to come to Hong Kong? How long will it take to increase quotas to at least pre-pandemic levels?

Clearly, more information needs to be disclosed to make the promise more credible.

Those who already suffer from toothache will find that they can’t wait to see the fruitful results of all this promise.

While public dental services are reserved for civil servants, including retirees, and their families, ordinary citizens either have to queue for seven hours to get a spot on the day or see a dentist at a private clinic. But private dental visits can cost a fortune, especially for low-income earners.

Until the imbalanced market returns to equilibrium, more Hong Kongers are expected to seek dental care in Shenzhen, where the cost is reportedly only a third of that.

No wonder the dental association is offering free oral health checks to 100,000 people next month.

Market forces are once again showing their magic.

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