Improving the oral health of older people

SA Dental Service is partnering on a project to improve oral healthcare for older people admitted to hospital.

Oral health care is about more than seeing a dentist.

When a person is unable to care for themselves, their oral health can quickly deteriorate and bacteria from the mouth can cause infections in other parts of the body and other health problems, such as pneumonia.

The initiative is a collaboration between SA Dental Service (part of the Central Adelaide Health Network), researchers from the Flinders University Caring Futures Institute and the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network (SALHN). It focuses on improving oral healthcare for patients within geriatric units at Noarlunga Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre.

The research team will look into existing practices in the geriatric units, then co-design multi-disciplinary strategies to improve oral healthcare, and mentor nursing and allied health staff to champion the project locally.

Caring Futures Institute researcher and speech pathologist Dr Joanne Murray says oral health is one of the most frequently neglected aspects of care experienced by older people.

“The aim is to build the capacity of the local clinicians to create sustainable and scalable change that can then be transferred to the implementation of any other complex health intervention,” Dr Joanne Murray says.

“Older people participating in hospital-based restorative or rehabilitation programs are at an elevated risk of poor oral health.

“This is because some chronic diseases such as diabetes can cause dry-mouth issues, but cognitive impairment, physical frailty and a reliance on others for personal care can play a part.”

The project “REDUCE Missed Oral Health Care: it takes a team” is being co-led by Dr Murray and SA Dental Service Adjunct Research Fellow Dr Adrienne Lewis, alongside fellow Institute researchers Dr Tiffany Conroy and Dr Sarah Hunter.

While poor oral health can cause serious medical issues, it is preventable and manageable through evidence-based oral healthcare and timely dental referral.

Adjunct Research Fellow Dr Adrienne Lewis from SA Dental Service said oral health care needs to be recognised as a care expectation for older people.

“It is time to put the mouth back into the body!” she says.

The research project is supported by a $20,000 grant from SA Dental Service and will run for 18 months.

It supports the South Australian Oral Health Plan 2019-26, by promoting the integration of oral health into general health.