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Dentists are licensed to practise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases, injuries and malformations of the teeth, jaws and associated structures. The dental labour force includes dentists, dental hygienists, dental therapists and dental prosthetists. In 2006, the majority of practising dentists in Australia (83%) worked in the private sector and the predominant area (84%) was in general practice. Despite improvements in the oral health of the Australian population over recent decades, dental problems have persisted as a common health complaint, ranked as the fourth most frequent illness condition, behind headache, hypertension and colds.
From the 1980s to the 1990s there has been a substantial decrease in the number of patients seen per hour by general practice dentists. There have been changes in the mix of services provided, with decreases in restorative and prosthodontic (denture) services and increases in diagnostic, preventive, endodontic, orthodontic, and crown and bridge services.
In 2006, there were 10,404 practising dentists in Australia, (50.3 per 100,000 population), an increase of 3.3% from 2005 (Dentist, specialists and allied practitioners: the Australian dental labour force, 2006, AIHW Dental Statistics and Research Series No. 53). The majority (83%) of practising dentists worked in the private sector and nearly 16% worked in the public sector. Just over one-quarter (27.2%) of all practising dentists worked part-time, ranging from 21% in the Northern Territory to 34% in South Australia. The percentage of females working part-time was double that of male dentists (42% compared to 21% respectively)
The average hours worked per week also varied by age group. Dentists in the 45-49 years age group worked on average the longest week (41.1 hours) while those in the 70 years and over age group worked the shortest week (26.7 hours). Females worked shorter hours across age groups, most noticeably in the younger age groups. The difference in average hours between males and females increased from 1.5 in the under 30 years age group to 10.6 in the 35-39 years age group.
Supply requirements for dentists are influenced by changes in work practices, productivity and labour force participation on the one hand and changes in patient demand on the other. Influences on demand include population growth, oral health status, cost and propensity to visit a dentist for preventative health reasons. Largely as a result of public health measures (such as water fluoridation and childhood screening) and rising education and real income levels, there has been a considerable improvement in the oral health of the population since the 1960s. This has led to a change in both the nature and number of dental consultations (persons with some or all natural teeth), from an annual number per capita of 0.99 in 1979 to 1.51 in 2005 (NDTIS, 2005).
The AIHW's Dental Statistics and Research Unit, established at the University of Adelaide, compiles a variety of dental statistics, including publications relating to dental hygienists and dental therapists. The Unit also has information from National Dental Telephone Interview Surveys and Dental Satisfaction Surveys. Specific information covers details of dentate status, access to services, reason for last visit and services received, for various segments of the population, including children, migrants and Indigenous people.