Associate Professor Rachel Martin laments that, in health circles, the mouth is often still seen as “outside of the body”.
“You’ll go to a doctor and they’ll look straight past your gums and your teeth and down your throat. Yet they, too, have a role in recognising what may be happening there as it affects the rest of your health and wellbeing.”
Rachel is now very well placed to “put the mouth back into the body”, as she calls it, in her role as the new Head of Dentistry and Oral Health at La Trobe University in Bendigo.
Taking up the post in February, just before COVID-19 took hold, Rachel is clear about her vision to reshape Bendigo’s oral healthcare education around community needs.
“It’s vital for oral health professionals of the future to be able to stand back and see the whole person and the whole community.
“I want students to understand that they’re not coming in to be a technician for people’s mouths. They’re coming into our program to actually build relationships with people, to help improve their health – not just their mouth health – their health.”
Rachel is a passionate believer in universal access to healthcare and an advocate, in particular, for the most vulnerable in the community.
“With many in the Bendigo community already benefiting from student clinics offered as part of the university’s oral health and dentistry program, Rachel plans to provide a similar service to residents at local aged care facilities – many of whom suffer chronic oral health issues.
“Oral health students and professionals need to work together to provide opportunities for many of the Bendigo community who aren’t able to access early and timely oral health care because of the limitations on the public system.”
It’s this system that Rachel has been working her whole career to improve.
As a newly qualified dentist, her first job was working in a mobile dental clinic with Indigenous communities in Gippsland.
That experience firmly cemented her commitment to community oral health, which underpinned a more recent career move – running the oral health service within one of Australia’s largest public housing estates in inner-city Melbourne.
The clinic not only treated some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable clients, it also shared space with Victoria’s first medically supervised injecting room in Richmond.
According to Rachel, solving existing problems is only part of the picture. Her vision is to educate all patients, and treat them as collaborators, in a bid to prevent health problems in the first place.
“Dentistry has traditionally been viewed as doing fillings, pulling teeth out and reconstructing. There’s so much more work that the profession can do at the other end of the spectrum – preventing disease and working on it at an early stage.
“Tooth decay and gum disease are the most common chronic diseases in our community, but they are also the most preventable. We haven’t been able to address those by building clinics and telling people to come to them. What is needed is a different approach.”
Central to Rachel’s approach is creating opportunities for closer collaboration between oral health and other health professionals – to deliver a holistic “whole person” service to patients. La Trobe’s Rural Health School in Bendigo trains a whole range of health practitioners, from physiotherapists to paramedics, nurses, and speech pathologists, among others.
The idea of integrated healthcare education is already taking root at the school. For example, future midwives are being trained to examine pregnant women’s mouths, to identify issues and refer them on, setting the scene for good oral health for the baby and in early childhood.
“I see the university as becoming a leader in the space of interprofessional collaboration and particular models of working.”
Rachel co-founded the Australian Network for Integration of Oral Health, which brings together academia, government and healthcare providers, to explore innovative ways of integrating oral and general health throughout a person’s lifespan.
“If we think about the access that people in rural and remote areas have to dental services, there are some people who would need to drive eight to 10 hours to even get to a dentist.
“Another approach is training and supporting the health professionals that are available in those communities to actually recognise early signs of disease when it can be reversed. And to recognise what the risks are for people to develop oral diseases.”
Meeting Rachel, it’s clear that social equity and justice run deep in her blood. She comes from a family that cares strongly about helping others. Rachel talks with pride about her 84-year-old father who still works as a medical science researcher – well into what most consider retirement age.
“My mother was an inspiration, too. She was a physiotherapist initially and then went on to be a medical ethicist. With my parents as role models and growing up in that space, I was raised to have a real sense of ‘what can we do to help others?’.
“That’s why I’ve come to the La Trobe Rural Health School. I see an amazing opportunity to make a difference to the health and wellbeing of our Bendigo community – there are many great things that we can achieve together.”