First Taitokerau Maori orthodontist says rural communities 'suffer in silence'

By Taroi Black

After seven years of study Caleb Lawrence has become the first Maori specialist in orthodontics based in Taitokerau where there is a lack of services in dental care.

"Before I came up here, there was only one orthodontist. So, with me coming up here, I hope it has provided another option,"  Lawrence says.  

Lawrence, who affiliates to Ngapuhi, moved up to Whangarei from Auckland and saw high demand for people wanting to get braces. However, it can cost $7000 to $10,000 for treatment, he says. 

"Unfortunately it can be quite expensive and it's not publicly funded."  

District health boards can cover costs for functional problems that prevent people from biting, chewing or having to smile. Adults, including people with disabilities or medical conditions such as mouth cancer, can have a limited range of dental services funded and may be referred to a hospital for their dental treatment by their usual dental practitioner or GP. 

Koha proposal

Whanau earning a low income can get urgent dental care such as pain relief or extractions through their Community Services Card. The services are provided by public hospitals or dentists contracted by district health boards.  

However, Lawrence is wanting to change the game for Maori by setting up a programme where individuals pay a koha. He was inspired by the Wish For a Smile, a charitable trust run by the New Zealand Association of Orthodontics - it provides free orthodontic treatment to young New Zealanders whose families would otherwise be unable to afford orthodontic care. 

"I'd love to do something like that for them." 

Maori adults are more likely than non-Maori to report that they had never visited a dental health care worker at all. 

"The main drive for me to become a dentist was basically to help my family."